How did doctors treat leprosy?

A sickness of biblical stature, leprosy is one of the most documented diseases in ancient history, and was mentioned in Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Roman and Indian texts.

How did doctors treat leprosy? (public domain)

It was regarded with horror and usually assumed to be divine punishment, called ‘the living death’. Sufferers were treated as though they were already dead and given ‘funeral’ services, after which their relatives were allowed to inherit their estates.

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Leprosy was considered to be highly contagious so the main treatment was containment, which involved isolating the sufferer from healthy people. Lepers would wear bandages to cover their sores and carried a bell to warn people that they were coming.

They weren’t even allowed inside churches, which is why many medieval churches had built-in ‘leper squints’ – holes through which ‘unclean’ people could watch the services. Even as late as the 1940s, sufferers were banished to colonies or even leper islands.

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Medicinal oil from the seeds of the chaulmoogra tree had little effect, and no real work was done until Norwegian physician GH Armauer Hansen isolated the leprosy bacillus in 1873. When treatments were attempted in the 20th century, they were either painful to administer or the germ quickly developed resistance. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a successful ‘multi-drug’ was created, and later approved by the World Health Organisation in 1981.

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of History Revealed. Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Sandra Lawrence. For more fascinating Q&A’s, pick up a copy of History Revealed – available in print and for digital devices.