British journalist Gould traces leprosy through the last two centuries, chronicling the medical community’s move away from the idea that the afflicted needed to be segregated into leper colonies.
In the 19th century, leprosy was a life sentence, with lepers consigned to social and psychological isolation. As late as the 1930s, patients entering leprosy sanitaria in the U.S. were told to pick a pseudonym, so as to spare their families disgrace. In a series of portraits, Gould honors both victims of the disease and those who devoted their lives to caring for them, such as Father Damien, “the martyr of Molokai.” A Catholic priest who lived and worked at a leprosy settlement on Molokai, Hawaii, Damien himself contracted the disease and died in 1889. His efforts inspired a number of like-minded Christians who wished to ameliorate the plight of leprosy victims. Hannah Riddell, an English missionary to Japan, founded Kaishun Sanatorium, and Victorian nurse Kate Marsden raised money for leprosy work in Siberia. (Gould is obsessed with criticizing Marsden’s biographer, repeatedly telling us that he was merely Marsden’s “mouthpiece” and that the biography is filled with “empty generalizations.”) The real hero of this book is Stanley Stein, a pharmacist from Texas who in 1931 entered a leprosy sanatorium in Carville, La. During his decades there, Stein became a powerful advocate for people with the disease. He built a sense of community among his fellow inmates, challenged Americans’ ignorant fears and won admirers.
Solid, at times moving, but it’s hard to imagine this book flying off shelves.