Until recently, the history of leprosy has been written as one of suffering, stigma, and absolute isolation for all leprosy patients. This panel demonstrates that contrary to this historiographical trend, leprosy patients did not stand alone in suffering, but rather were part of local communities and even global networks. Studies of three communities, which grew up within and around leprosy settlements in Hawaii, Uganda, and Swaziland, and the networks that connected these communities to doctors, researchers, and other leprosy sufferers around the world, are essential to a global understanding of leprosy care and treatment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The most localized formation of leprosy communities took place within leprosy settlements, where the unique experience of living in a leprosy “colony” created and controlled by Europeans, forged new bonds of community and identity among residents, as demonstrated in Swaziland’s Encabaneni settlement. These new communities were negotiated by all of the residents of a leprosy settlement, from leprosy patients to healthy family members and staff. At Uganda’s Lake Bunyonyi Leprosy Colony, British missionaries saw the relative isolation of a leprosy settlement as the perfect opportunity for the engineering of communities that suited their ideal for Uganda’s Christian and “civilized” future. In the Hawaiian leprosy settlement on Makanulua peninsula, a community formed across the boundaries between the “healthy” and the “leprous,” in spite of the best efforts of government authorities to separate them.
Beyond the local communities that formed within and around leprosy settlements, the medical staff who treated leprosy in Swaziland, Uganda, and Hawaii were links in a global community of leprosy research that transcended national, colonial, and state boundaries. In an atmosphere where knowledge was transferred globally through conferences, journals, correspondence, and travels, the history of leprosy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries can be understood as one of local communities linked together in a global network.