Leprosy - Once a Common Sight

Today many people think of leprosy only as a Third World disease. But the sickness has been an all too common element of European daily life through the centuries, especially in the coastal regions. In Western Norway there were still many people suffering from this disease after it was practically wiped out from the rest of Europe.

St. Jørgens Hospital (= The St. George Hospital) in Bergen was founded before 1411, and was the central institution for treating lepers in Western Norway. It is interesting to note that the Norwegian word for leper, ”spedalsk”, old form is ”spitalsk”, means a person staying at the hospital.

In the middle of the 19th century Bergen became the scientific centre of the efforts to cure leprosy, through the work of Dr. Danielsen and Dr. Armauer Hansen, who discovered the Mycrobacterium leprae in 1873. Today leprosy is practically non- existant in Europe, but in the rest of the world there are maybe 10-15 million lepers, and the fight against Hansen’s disease - as it is known in several countries - is now mainly fought in Africa, Asia and Latin-America.

Here we present two drawings, showing the two main forms of leprosy, from Atlas of Leprosy published in Bergen by Danielssen & Boeck in 1847. Also presented are excerpts from patient’s journals from St. Jørgen’s Hospital in the 1860’s and 70’s with descriptions of symptoms and the development of the illness. According to the book, quite a number of the patients had acquired the disease while working as shepherds.


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"A 13 year old boy in whom the nodules are fully developed. They have converged in several places and many have started to soften. The eyebrows have fallen off. He became leprous at the age of 5." (Danielssen & Boeck: Atlas of Leprosy. Bergen 1847. Photo: GSJ)
"A 38 year old man suffering from leprosy of the anaesthesia type." (Danielssen & Boeck: Atlas of Leprosy. Bergen 1847. Photo: GSJ)
Entry from patient's journal. (BBA: 313:Kc:1, Photo GSJ)
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Excerpt from a patient's journal, naming shepherding as a common cause of the illness: (BBA: 313:Kc:1, Photo GSJ)
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