The Exiles of Molokai

I’d heard about The Colony, John Tayman’s history of the Kalawao leper settlement on Molokai, in Hawaai, from a reader with whom I correspond on occasion, and I was very intrigued. Mary Roach’s excellent review of the book in the Sunday NYTBR has certainly whet my appetite:

The kicker here, the monumental inequity, is that people with leprosy were exiled for no good medical reason. Leprosy is not an especially contagious disease. Only 5 percent of the population are genetically susceptible to it. And even they would probably emerge untainted: only a third of untreated leprosy patients have the disease in its active, infectious state.

Yet so great was the hysteria surrounding leprosy that hundreds, probably even thousands, of people who only appeared to have the disease were packed off to colonies. At one point, patients in Kalawao were allowed to request a rediagnosis. Ten out of the first 11 to do so did not have leprosy. A diagnosis of leprosy, accurate or inaccurate, amounted to a criminal conviction. By law, people deemed lepers could be hunted down, stripped of their rights and torn from their families. And most of them were – until well after effective treatment was established, in the 1940’s. The story of Kalawao is the story of an injustice as deep and complete as any in human history.

“The Lepers of Molokai,” an essay that Jack London wrote for Woman’s Home Companion in 1908, and in which he “kept himself in check” about the horrors of the place, is available online here.

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