Leprosy in Colonial South India: Medicine and Confinement

By Jane. Buckingham | Go to book overview

Introduction

Leprosy is a bacterial infection caused by Mycobacterium leprae, an organism closely related to the tuberculosis bacterium. Unlike tuberculosis, leprosy is difficult to contract and is rarely fatal. The exact mechanisms for the communication of leprosy are still unknown, though it is believed that while bacteria can be discharged through leprous ulcers, the principal mode of transmission is by coughing and sneezing. Contrary to popular belief, leprosy is neither sexually transmitted nor is it inherited. Although they can infiltrate every part of the body, leprosy bacteria concentrate in the skin and peripheral nerves, resulting in the dramatic dermatological effects of the disease. The primary symptoms of leprosy – paralysis, inflammation and loss of feeling – are the result of nerve damage caused by the body's immune response to bacterial invasion. Though rare in Europe, leprosy is still prevalent in India and Africa, and there are currently over one million cases in India. Leprosy is now curable with multi-drug therapy, which involves the use of various combinations of anti-bacterial drugs and anti-inflammatory drugs which can reduce nerve damage and thus prevent the paralysis and anaesthesia which usually follow.

In the West leprosy is regarded as an ancient disease, familiar from Leviticus and the Christian tradition, but rarely seen. Even so, the disease has a powerful symbolic resonance and the term ‘leper’ is still commonly used as a synonym for a person feared, hated and driven to the margins of society. I have used the term ‘leprosy sufferer’ wherever possible in an effort to avoid the stigmatizing term ‘leper’.

Stigmatism, while provoking horror, also provokes curiosity. However, this volume is driven more by curiosity about the dynamics of colonial power, specifically the contribution of medicine and law to the configuration of colonial authority. It concerns particularly the relationship between indigenous and British medical and legal systems, and the impact of such systems on the leprosy sufferer in south India. South India, more particularly the Madras presidency encompassing much of contemporary Kerala, Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh, is the focus of this study for two reasons. During the British colonial period, of the three British presidencies

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