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

By Michelle T. Moran | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
Protecting the National Body

In June 1914, leprosy patient and Spanish-American War veteran John Ralston Early made national headlines simply by taking a room in a hotel. After escaping a Puget Sound quarantine station and trekking across North America, Early checked into the fashionable Hotel Willard in the District of Columbia under an assumed name. He considered his accommodations carefully selecting an establishment favored by members of Congress, ambassadors, and even Vice President Thomas Marshall and his wife. After spending a few days mixing with hotel guests, he notified the city health inspector of his condition and location. Early then gathered a small pool of reporters at the Willard to explain the purpose of his actions and reveal his true identity.1 He said that he had planned the trip to protest the enforced isolation that he and other leprosy patients faced and to demand that the national government provide better care for people in his situation. He explained, “I knew that if I mingled among the well-to-do and the rich and exposed them to contagion that they would arise out of self-protection and further my plan of a national home.”2 He announced to the reporters, “No matter what my trials are here, I will fight for my constitutional right as a citizen of the United States, and I will resist any effort to ship me to some place where I don’t want to go.”3 To some extent, Early’s stunt had its desired effect. Although he was arrested and quarantined in an isolated facility on the banks of the Anacostia River, his actions reignited a decades-old debate over the need for a federal facility that would care for Americans with leprosy. The wheels of legislation moved slowly, and Congress did not pass a bill to establish a national leprosarium until 1917, but legislators, physicians, and public health professionals often invoked the name of John Early when making their case for federal intervention in the treatment and containment of leprosy.4

Physicians and public health officials had been petitioning Congress to establish a national leprosarium since the 1880s, spurred in large part by concerns that U.S. imperial interventions in places where leprosy was en-

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