What is a Leper Colony?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A leper colony is a community designed for the purpose of quarantining people with leprosy, a chronic condition caused by a bacterial infection. Formally organized leper colonies have existed since at least the Middle Ages, with some leper communities isolating themselves by choice prior to the medieval period. A handful of leper colonies can still be seen around the world, although access to such colonies is no longer restricted, and the occupants are free to leave, should they so desire.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

The idea of isolating people with leprosy, better known as Hansen's Disease, stemmed from a fear of people with disfigurements which was extremely widespread in the Middle Ages. Medieval society also feared lepers because people thought the condition was contagious. Leper colonies were designed to keep lepers isolated inside so that they would not come into contact with the rest of society, although an imperfect understanding of leprosy led to the internment of people with a range of medical conditions, not just leprosy, in such colonies historically.

In the 20th century, research on leprosy revealed that it is, in fact, very difficult to get Hansen's Disease, and the bulk of the world's population is immune. Furthermore, researchers discovered a range of treatment options for the disease. As a result, many leper colonies closed, because there was no longer a perceived need for such facilities. However, some communities of people with leprosy chose to remain at the sites of their former colonies with friends, family members, and a familiar environment.

The conditions in a leper colony could be quite varied. Some colonies were essentially like small villages, and although they happened to be in remote, isolated locations, the residents experienced fairly pleasant living conditions. In other cases, a leper colony could be a very grim place, with lack of access to suitable housing, poor conditions for farming, and limited opportunities for support from the surrounding community. In both cases, the fact that residents were not allowed to leave the leper colony would have been chafing, to say the least.

Historically, if a leper needed to venture out of the leper colony for any reason, he or she would need to ring a bell or wear some sort of noisemaking object to alert people, much like one puts a bell on a cat. The idea was that citizens who feared infection could scatter at the sound, although the experience was undoubtedly also designed to be humiliating to discourage lepers from trading with the outside world and wandering in the general community. Lepers were also forced to use different money than the rest of the population, and most leper colonies relied heavily upon charity from religious organizations and friendly citizens to survive.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Reading about erstwhile leper colonies can be heartbreaking. No one in their society cared anything about these people, and many of them suffered greatly.

Often, the missionaries brought trained medical personnel with them to help give the people some relief from their conditions.


Many missionaries worked in leper colonies, and sometimes, were the people's only source of medical, humanitarian or spiritual help. Most of the people in the leper colonies had been exiled from their homes and families, and conditions were rarely of the pleasant kind. No one with the wherewithal to do so had any incentive to make the colonies pleasant for the inmates.

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