King's College London
Online Exhibitions
Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

Leprosy

Two mounted portrait photographs of a patient from Mauritius, before and after treatment for leprosyTwo mounted photographs of a patient from Mauritius, before and after treatment for leprosyIn the late 19th century leprosy became the cause-célèbre of popular humanitarianism, particularly amongst missionary societies who had stations throughout the Empire.

The popularity of this cause amongst Christian groups was in no small part due to the prominent role of leprosy in Biblical stories. It stemmed from a range of sources such as Leviticus 13:44, or the reported miracle of Jesus ‘cleansing’ a leprosy sufferer in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.

One missionary nurse wrote: ‘I am so glad that [leprosy sufferers] appealed to Christ as they did, because he has set us an example,’ reflecting a popular ambition to recreate Jesus’s miracles.

In 1884, a Belgian priest, Father Damien, contracted leprosy from his patients at the Moloka’i leprosy settlement in Hawai’i and died of the illness in 1889. In doing so, Father Damien became exalted as a martyr for his efforts in the name of spreading Christianity and caring for leprosy sufferers. A day of fund-raising and celebration was named in his honour and in 1890 the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) called for a statue of Father Damien to be built as he launched the National Leprosy Fund. In 2009, Father Damien was canonized by the Catholic Church.

Dr Poupinel De Valencé’s work, held in the FCO Historical Collection and featured here, therefore fed into a much wider, non-medical, interest in leprosy which had Royal pedigree. His research in Mauritius, where he administered experimental treatment to sufferers of the disease, also engaged in a contemporary debate over the cure of leprosy.

De Valencé stated that ‘it was not without some hesitation … I decided to make an experiment with this lymph.’

‘This lymph’ was Koch’s Tuberculin, which took its name from German scientist Robert Koch. In 1890, Koch had announced the potentially curative effects and diagnostic capabilities of the fluid for sufferers of tuberculosis. Initial euphoria gave way to scientific criticism and discussion, to which De Valencé contributed.

De Valencé’s experiments did produce what was ‘tantamount to a cure,’ for at least one patient, to which he pointed readers to the accompanying photographic evidence.

For Joseph Legoff, a 23 year-old patient of De Valencé whose portrraits are reproduced here, no such breakthrough was made. Nonetheless the difference in the two photographs highlights an attempt to mould Legoff’s hair in the fashion of the late 19th century, presenting a more respectable figure for the viewing audience, no doubt to encourage support for De Valencé’s endeavours.

Further note:

The FCO Historical Collection, as well as the wider Foyle Special Collections Library medical-related collections, hold a wealth of material related to the history of medicine and healthcare. Further information can be found by consulting the overview of Special Collections and the Archives and Special Collections medical collections guide.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

Colony of Mauritius. Further experiments made with Koch's tuberculin by Dr. Poupinel de Valencé in the cases of ten lepers, 1891

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