‘Hidden Lives, Concealed Narratives’


THE National Historical Commission of the Philippines publishes a number of books yearly on political and economic events in Philippine History. This year, they have come out with a very different but relevant book, Hidden Lives, Concealed Narratives: A History of Leprosy in the Philippines.  It is relevant because it is part of the national narrative concerning health, illness, social implications of such, attempted solutions and the status quo.

It is a book produced by a grant from the Sasakawa Foundation, a Japanese philanthropy that has helped lepers here, with contributions from historians using primary sources as well as NHCP officers—Chair Maria Serena I. Diokno, who edited it and wrote the overview essay, as well as Veronica Dado, the deputy director who delineates the rationale and structure of the Culion Leper Colony.

Leprosy is from Biblical times a dreaded disease thought to be contagious, stigmatizing its sufferers for the rest of their lives.  Lepers have been ostracized and banished from the general population since prehistoric times for fear and loathing of the disease. In many societies, leprosy was seen as a punishment for the sins of those who were stricken by it.

At the advent of the Spaniards to the Philippines, they encountered leper bands living apart from the general population, as though hiding and cowering from their fellowmen.

The Franciscan Order of monks, which came with other religious orders to Christianize the Philippines with Spanish colonization, took the role of caring for lepers. Leprosy was still an incurable disease and while the Franciscan mission was to care for the sick, they concentrated on spiritual ministration in view of the lack of a cure for leprosy; in effect, consoling the lepers and preparing them for death. This was compassionate work that gave comfort, care and a spiritual rationalization of their plight. It was enough to accept their fate as the will of God.

The first San Lazaro Hospital, founded by the Franciscans in Paco, was for the care of lepers. When it was moved to its present location later, it was still for lepers principally. Now it cares for those afflicted with contagious diseases.

For a long time, the Franciscans toiled for the lepers—17th to 19th centuries–and until in the 19th century, both the Church hierarchy and the Spanish colonial government had been taking note of the large number of lepers in Cebu, and together built a large hospital for lepers there.

Upon the arrival of the Americans to the Philippines, a general sanitation drive was employed, addressing diseases like cholera, beriberi, malaria, tuberculosis and leprosy.

By that time, the general trend in medical protocol was to remove lepers and isolate them for fear of contamination of healthy citizens. Thus, the health authorities, together with police forces, were authorized to search for and arrest lepers and bring them, with or without their consent, to a designated leper colony, which was Culion Island in Palawan.
Here, a whole colony was built from scratch to contain lepers and their caregivers—doctors, nurses and religious ministers. And from the able-bodied lepers themselves, they had policemen, firemen, storekeepers and even a musical band.  Government allowances were given in a separate currency known as Culion coins that was equivalent to Philippine currency but for use by lepers alone.

Culion was a way of life for lepers separated by government decree from their homes and families. It had houses, a plaza, auditorium, a hospital cemetery—everything a town had.

International medical organizations and philanthropic foundations considered it a state-of-the-art answer to leprosy. And many such entities and persons came to Culion to study it.  Leonard Wood, governor-general and a medical doctor, was particularly interested in and involved with Culion, visiting it many times even after his tenure. There is a monument to his memory there. Jesuit priests and Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres were the religious who ministered to the lepers in Culion. The nuns were nurses and took care of the lepers’ children when they were separated from the parents to prevent their contamination with the disease.

Segregation of male and female Culion lepers was attempted but did not succeed with demonstrations and violence perpetuated by the lepers against the rule and wholesale elopements occurring despite the ban on marriages. In time, the ban was lifted as it was ignored. Next came the removal of children from their parents after which they were put up for adoption in the belief that they were being saved from contamination. This was agony and suffering for all concerned.

No real cure for leprosy was found until after World War II, with the MDT, a multiple drug therapy that brought it about in the form of halting the disease, removing the risk of contamination and bringing on the possibility of a return to society. For many it was too late. The stigma of leprosy was so much a part of their identity that lepers who were cured declined to go back to families that had abandoned them or were ashamed of them or were no longer in the orbit of their lives. So Culion went on for those who, as one of them said,
“I am a different person now and my world is another one.”

Eventually, health authorities recognized the social and individual cost of isolation and put up leprosy hospitals in other parts of the country—Bicol, Leyte, Zamboanga, Jolo, Cebu, Ilocos and Tala—so families would be near them.  But leprosy was still the dreaded disease that most people did not want to deal with—whether family, friends or strangers. Yet it brought, too, heroism from many like Dr. Herbert Windsor Wade and his wife Dorothy, who came in the 1920s to Culion, to help the lepers and stayed until their deaths in the l960s; the Jesuit priest Fr. Olazabal, who, at 60, also came to Culion to minister to the lepers and worked himself to death, caring for them materially and spiritually; nuns, nurses, teachers, the Franciscans of old, a whole race of self-sacrificing heroes and heroines are part of the history of leprosy in this country.

Modern medicine and good sanitation have controlled the disease that is no longer considered contagious but curable without the necessity of segregation. That is the happy part of the leprosy story. But its past history from the earliest times till barely yesterday is a saga of suffering and despair, resignation and sorrow, isolation and ostracism.

The last essays in the book are the personal stories of lepers themselves telling us what they went through and how they survived despite suicidal thoughts, depression and questioning the Almighty for being singled out to be punished.

This book is a history that demands a reflection of the human condition.


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1 Comment

  1. I wanted to [like] and [share] this review by Ma Isabel Ongpin but could not do so simply because the review failed to recognize the individuals struggle for survival by calling them ‘lepers’. It was done out of the lack of knowledge, I am sure, but the word ‘leper’ defines a total person by a single disease and not acceptable, except in the defined historical contexts. The first elected mayor of Culion Municipality was a person who once had leprosy but by no means his life could be defined by this single word. History of leprosy is full of lessons for us in today and future society. I sincerely hope this review will be ‘rewrited’ to honor this part of history of the Philippines.