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

By Michelle T. Moran | Go to book overview

Epilogue

By the 1950s, medical professionals and patients shared a common mission of developing better methods of treatment for Hansen’s disease and of challenging its stigmatized nature. They achieved some remarkable successes in the first of these goals, but the second goal has proven much harder to realize. One important reason that leprosy has been so resistant to redefinition may be found in its tangled relationship with U.S. imperialism, which transformed conceptions of leprosy from a timeless and ancient curse to a contemporary foreign scourge that endangered a modern and civilized nation. Ideas for containing people with leprosy within a specific federal institution may seem to have their roots in European medievalism, but they did not gain currency until U.S. missionary ventures, economic expansion, and colonial acquisitions in the nineteenth century made leprosy a more visible and exotic presence. Colonial administrators in Hawai‘i and other territories gained knowledge in managing, categorizing, and containing bodies perceived to threaten U.S. interests. Treatment and management of the disease emerged in a colonial setting, and this context has continued to inform public health practice and Americans’ understanding of the disease throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Recognizing this imperialist influence allows us to understand how leprosy’s stigma has endured even as its meanings have changed over time.

To argue that the history of leprosy in the United States cannot be understood without appreciating how U.S. imperialism informed medical practice and patient experience is also to invite further explorations into the ways in which the possession and cultivation of an American empire shaped broader understandings of medicine, disease, and public health in both “foreign” and “domestic” settings. In the case of leprosy, for example, public health officials and physicians regularly invoked the supposed superiority of Western medicine to justify intervention into the intimate lives of Hawaiians. Medicine was a so-called “gift of civilization” that improved conditions for

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