Colonizing Leprosy: Imperialism and the Politics of Public Health in the United States

By Michelle T. Moran | Go to book overview

Introduction

In May 1946, a Paramount newsreel segment entitled “In Sickness and In Health: Husband Seeks to Join Wife in Leper Colony” introduced moviegoers to the story of Hans and Gertrude Hornbostel. According to this “story of devotion,” Hans, a U.S. Army major who survived the Bataan death march, wanted permission to accompany his wife as she sought treatment at the federal leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana. Gertrude had contracted leprosy while imprisoned by Japanese forces at Santa Thomas in the Philippines. Audiences were assured that Gertrude’s hope for a cure at Carville were “excellent.” Once she entered the facility, however, she would not be able to leave until doctors determined that she no longer posed a threat to public health. Regulations prohibited Hans, who did not have leprosy, from entering the facility with his wife. Seeking to sway health officials by taking their story to the public, the Hornbostels made a compelling case that as a happily married couple of thirty-three years, and one that had already experienced the trauma of separation during the war, they deserved to remain together at Carville. “Whom God hath joined let no man put asunder,” Gertrude Hornbostel recited in the newsreel. “Yes, and that’s why I want to stay with you,” her husband replied, putting his arm around her shoulder. The couple kissed as the segment ended.1

In 1952, movie audiences viewing the anti-Communist picture Big Jim McLain saw another story of leprosy unfold on the big screen. In this film, John Wayne plays the title character, an agent for the House Un-American Activities Committee tracking down members of the Communist Party in Hawai‘i. McLain grows concerned when his investigations lead him to the leprosy settlement at Kalaupapa, on the island of Moloka‘i. As his plane lands on the peninsula, he admits, “Frankly leprosy scares me—scares most people I guess.” He enters a small medical office to interrogate a Nurse Numaka, who confesses that she had been a Communist for eleven years “before I came to my senses.” During their discussion, she leaves her desk to

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