“If there was ever a Christ-like work in the world, it is to go amongst these poor sufferers and bring them the consolation of the gospel.”
said Wellesley Bailey, the founder of The Leprosy Mission, after he saw first-hand the appalling living conditions and social isolation of people suffering from leprosy in 1869.
It wasn’t until 1913 when Bailey and his wife Alice visited Australia that he inspired locals to found their very own support chapter.
The Leprosy Mission Australia was formed to raise awareness about leprosy and provide financial support to bring hope and healing to people affected by the disease.
In 1869, Wellesley was teaching at a mission school in Ambala, India. The school principal, Dr Morrison, invited him to visit a small leprosy asylum. The experiences of the people there inspired Wellesley to commit to regular visits. During his work in Ambala, he wrote regularly to his childhood friend, Alice Graham. It was in this correspondence that they became engaged. Wellesley Bailey also shared stories from the Ambala leprosy asylum which Alice would pass on to her friends, the Pim sisters.
Alice married Wellesley in India in 1871. Three years later, they returned to their native Ireland. Their childhood friends, the Pim sisters, encouraged them to speak of their work at the Ambala Leprosy asylum. Following a meeting in their house, the Pim sisters arranged a more public address at the Monkstown Quaker Meeting House. A tract from this address was circulated throughout Dublin. Four years later, in 1878, “The Mission to Lepers” was formalised (which was later renamed “The Leprosy Mission”). In 1873, the Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the bacteria responsible for leprosy. He named it M.leprae. Dr Albert Neisser stained the bacteria, improving its identification seven years later.
In 1891, Mary Reed became The Leprosy Mission’s first missionary. She was appointed to work in a leprosy asylum in Chandag, Northern India. After contracting leprosy herself some years prior, she was miraculously cured. She helped build a church, chapels and a small hospital, improved housing and arranged a well to bring safe water into the village.
Reverend J. A. Cullen, the first honorary superintendent for The Leprosy Mission in India, visited Melbourne following some ill health. An enthusiastic churchman and bank manager Horace J. Hannah invited him to make an address to the Gleaner’s Union at Holy Trinity Church. A donation of 2 pounds and 10 shillings was collected for people affected by leprosy. Correspondence and support continued, largely through the efforts of Hannah, for the next ten years. In 1908, Hannah and his friends established an auxiliary.
It wasn’t until a visit by Wellesley and Alice Bailey in 1913, that Australians decided to formally establish their own The Leprosy Mission chapter. On 8 July a meeting was held in the Church Missionary Association Reading Room in Melbourne. Twenty people joined together, various positions were appointed (Hannah was appointed Honorary Secretary and Treasurer), and The Leprosy Mission Australia was formally founded. A couple of months later, Hannah was formally appointed President and Honorary Treasurer, positions he held until he died in October 1958. On the brink of war, it would be a difficult next few years. Yet The Leprosy Mission flourished. By the time Wellesley Bailey retired in 1917 The Leprosy Mission had 87 programmes in 12 countries and support offices in eight countries.
Following great advances in microbiology over the last fifty years, a treatment for leprosy had become available. Patients received oil derived from the Chaulmoogra tree to be taken orally or injected into the skin. Some people were cured in this way. With a flush of hope, the word “asylum” was outlawed in 1925, and replaced with “hospital” and its promise of healing. The Leprosy Mission’s headquarters moved from Dublin to London and a bold aim to eradicate leprosy was adopted, focussing at least partly on the additional benefits of improving living conditions.
In 1935 the powerful antibiotic drug “DDS” (short for “Diamino-Diphenyl-Sulphone”) was developed. Initially three German chemists had discovered the compounds in 1908. Yet it did not suit their purposes and was shelved. It was later developed by several chemists during the 1930s, and earned one of them a Nobel prize. Initial trials proved that the drug was too toxic and too expensive as an antibiotic. But refinements in production eventually resulted in the drug known as Dapsone.
Hospitals began to replace leprosy “asylums”; the work expanded into Africa, Asia, and the Far East. The Mission’s headquarters moved from Dublin to London. The bold aim to eradicate leprosy was adopted.
The world had returned to war and The Leprosy Mission’s work was severely disrupted. Many patients were dispersed, hospitals were destroyed or abandoned, and staff interred. Immediately following the War, great medical advances were made.
Dr Paul Brand, who later joined The Leprosy Mission, introduced the view that the loss of fingers and toes was due to infection and thus wholly preventable. Drawing upon his experiences as an orthopaedic surgeon during the war, he pioneered “tendon transfer” surgery with his colleagues in Karigiri, India to correct leprosy-related deformities.
Dr Margaret Brand, his wife, devoted herself to preventing blindness in people affected by leprosy. These advances would also prove invaluable for people with diabetes and other diseases.
In 1945, the first effective cure for leprosy, Dapsone, became available.
Following the release of Dapsone, millions of patients were successfully cured and many leprosy colonies, no longer relevant, were closed.
Some strains of leprosy begin to develop a resistance to the drug.
A year later, a researcher identified Clofazimine as an effective drug against leprosy. Clofazimine would later join Dapsone and one other drug as the modern cure used universally today.
In 1960, leprosy was successfully transmitted to mouse footpads for laboratory testing. Seven years later this resulted in the discovery of Rifampicin as an effective antibiotic for leprosy. In 1965, “The Mission to Lepers” formally adopted the new name “The Leprosy Mission” to avoid perpetuating the stigma associated with “leper”.
The Leprosy Mission Australia starts supporting projects in Papua New Guinea, Thailand and Nepal, where the new Anandaban hospital is opened.
The Leprosy Mission’s community work dramatically increased during this period. Local medical staff travelled from village to village finding new cases and providing anti-leprosy drugs under the integrated, patient-centred approach of “Survey, Education, Treatment”.
In 1969, Trevor and Heather Smith began work at the McKean Rehabilitation Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
The quarterly publication “Without the Camp” that began in 1915 was replaced with ACTION Magazine from 1967 and continues today.
By the end of the 1960s, the only fully-tested anti-leprosy drug was ineffective against resistant strains of bacteria. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the wonder-drug Dapsone was becoming unsustainable. Trials that combined multiple treatments for leprosy were carried out.
An estimated 15 million people worldwide still suffering from leprosy, with only one sufferer in every five receiving any sort of treatment.
In response, The Leprosy Mission’s community work dramatically increased; local skilled medical staff travelled from village to village diagnosing new cases and providing anti-leprosy drugs.
In 1981, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended a new drug treatment for leprosy called Multi-Drug Therapy (MDT). This combination of Dapsone, Clofazimine and Rifampicin drew upon decades of medical research. People could now be cured of leprosy in as little as six months, with almost no risk of antibiotic resistance.
The following year, The Leprosy Mission agreed to adopt MDT in its treatment of leprosy.
As more leprosy-affected people were cured, caring for people with lasting disabilities became increasingly important.
The Leprosy Mission began a programme of social, economic, and physical rehabilitation, and started supporting projects in Nigeria.
Not every country could afford to adopt the use of MDT. But by 1999, the pharmaceutical producers of Clofazimine and Rifampicin, Norvartis, and the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development signed an agreement with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to cover the costs of producing and shipping MDT to endemic countries for the next five years. This first agreement has since been extended and expanded in scope, and continues today. The Leprosy Mission Australia began its funding of projects in Timor Leste.
At the turn of the century, there were significantly fewer cases of leprosy than at any other time in human history. The focus of The Leprosy Mission’s work shifted to training, skills development, and income generation for people affected by leprosy.
In 2008, a second bacteria responsible for leprosy was discovered and given the name M.lepromatosis.
The Leprosy Mission Australia is still committed to the vision of a world without leprosy.
Your support allows expert care to leprosy-affected people to continue throughout the world, restoring individuals, families and communities to a life of hope.