Christ and Leprosy Patient
Christ and Leprosy Patient

Leprosy is one of the oldest diseases. It can be traced back to the beginning of mankind thousands of years ago. The oldest historical documents confirm leprosy in India, China, Ethiopia and Egypt. The Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament can be considered the most famous historical source about this illness. The term „Tsaraath“ is mentioned in chapter 13,1-46 and can be translated as “leprosy”. However, this does not specify leprosy as it is defined today but covers a variety of skin transformations.


The attitude of healthy people towards leprosy people was coined by the Old Testament, excluding them from society. We can find the following instruction in the 3rd Book of Moses 13,45-46: "He who is leprous, shall be clad in torn clothes, wear his hair loose and cover his beard, and shall cry: “Unclean! Unclean!“ And as long as he is leprous, he shall be unclean, live on his own and apart from the settlement.”

During the Greco-Roman Ancient World as well as in the Byzantine and the areas of Arabian culture in Western Europe, medical doctors were familiar with the symptoms of leprosy. There were various terms for the illness at that time. Two of the most well-known terms originate from the Ancient World: Elephanthiasis and Leprosy. The term “Elephanthiasis“ in ancient medical scripts was used according to the symptoms, on the one hand due to the leathern swelling of the skin, on the other hand it related to the exreme suffering endured by leprosy people. The term „leprosy“ can be found in the collected medical scripts of the Greco epoch (Corpus Hippocraticum) defining a scabby disease. From the Middle Ages on, this term has been used up to our days.

In Ancient Times, medical doctors already tried to divide leprosy into precise forms of appearance. Consequently, four forms of leprosy were mentioned at that time: Elephantica, Leonina, Tyria and Alopecia.

Aussätziger mit Lepraklapper
An outcast (leprosy) with leprosy rattle

During the ancient times, people affected by leprosy were completely separated from healthy people. They neither received any medical treatment nor were they cared for. Any contact with them was avoided due to the fear of infection. Only during the spread of Christianity and based on the Commandment of Charity did the attitude towards leprosy people gradually change. Support of the leprous was considered as a service for the suffering Christ, e.g. St. Elisabeth from Thuringia (1207-1231) who cleaned the wounds of the leprous and Francis of Assisi (1181-1231) who cared for the ill in a warm-hearted and respectful way. However, most people feared the contact with leprosy patients to such an extent that leprosy settlements, which were always located outside the villages, were isolated. Nevertheless, the number of people affected by leprosy rose to a dangerous extent during the Early Middle Ages. In 1179, the III Lateran Council lead to the prohibition of contact between ill and healthy people so that the illness would not spread any further. “Leprosi cum sanis habitare non possunt". Thus the leprous were stigmatised.

Leprosy rattle

They had to wear frock-like garments, the so-called leprosy-frock, and make themselves heard by acoustic sounds when approaching the world of the healthy. This was done by means of bells, later by a leprous horn or a leprous rattle. Gloves had to be worn in order to avoid direct contact with healthy people. Moreover, they were equipped with a cane so that they could point at objects or items whenever they wanted to purchase something.

During the 12th century there were about 19.000 leprosy houses in Europe. Often, the transfer to these houses was not voluntary. In case of doubt, the potential leprosy patient had to be examined („examen leprosarum”). When transferred to a leprosarium, the person concerned had to take an oath of abstemiousness and obedience. Clerics took care of the leprous in a special leprosarium which was financed by donations and in form of trusts.

During the Late Middle Ages a decrease in the leprosy rate was caused by:

  1. The strict isolation which lead to an interruption of the infection chain.
  2. The devastating epidemic of the Black Death between 1350 and 1450, by which especially the weak were affected.
  3. Considerably improved hygienic conditions and improved nutrition, in which the introduction of the potato as a staple played an important role in Europe.


An outstanding event during the history of leprosy took place in the year 1873 when the Norwegian public health officer from Bergen, Dr. Henrik Armauer Hansen (1841-1912) identified the agent of leprosy: the Mycobacterium Leprae, thus proving that leprosy was an infectious disease.


Only the year 1982 brought the desired turning point.
The World Health Organisation declared:
"Leprosy is curable".

Die Illustrationen dieser Seite stammen aus dem Institut für Geschichte der Medizin der Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf und sind hier mit freundlicher Genehmigung aufgenommen.