Leprosy: Segregation and Imperial Hygiene

  • Alison Bashford


In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leprosy was not exclusively a colonial issue,1 but for most English-speaking governments, scientists, epidemiologists and public health officers, leprosy was thoroughly organised through, situated in, and productive of questions and imperatives of race relations and colonial rule.2 It was, unlike tuberculosis or smallpox, often conceptualised as a ‘tropical disease’ even though it was a public health problem in decidedly untropical places such as New Brunswick, British Columbia or Robben Island in Cape Colony. Indeed the tropical medicine expert Patrick Manson wrote of ‘a good many lepers in Iceland’ but such exceptions did not stop him, or his colleagues in the field from comprehending leprosy as a disease of ‘tropical and sub-tropical countries’.3 Despite serious questioning over the mode of transmission of leprosy, systems of isolation were implemented in varying degrees of rigidity and in numerous imperial locations, especially from the late 1880s. This was not incidentally, but rather intimately, even causally related to the colonial context of much leprosy management: the non-whiteness of so many people with the disease.4 As an ‘imperial disease’ the control of leprosy became entangled with spatial governance of indigenous people throughout the British Empire, with colonial laws as well as local rule regulating movement, contact and institutionalisation.


White Woman Aboriginal People Aboriginal Woman Chief Medical Officer Quarantine Station 
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Copyright information

© Alison Bashford 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alison Bashford
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of SydneyAustralia

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