Visiting the Leper Colony at Carville, Louisiana

louisianaCarville, Louisiana is a dot of a place, just a pinhead on a map of the southern U.S. snuggled right up against an earthen levee that protects the little town from the Mighty Mississippi. It is named for political commentator James Carville’s great-grandfather who was the postmaster in the area.

But what I discovered there was something I had never seen in all of my travels around the world – something that I didn’t really think existed anymore.

In Carville Louisiana, I visited a leper colony. If you’re like me when I realized where I was going and what I was doing, you recoiled and visions of Biblical plagues flashed across your mind’s eye at the word “leper.”  

But by the time I left, I felt shame for my reaction. Maybe this story will make you feel just a little uncomfortable as well, but more importantly, open your eyes, like mine did. That’s what travel is supposed to do after all, open your mind and your eyes and maybe your heart.


Open Your Mind in Carville Louisiana

First of all, I thought leprosy didn’t exist any longer, that it was one of those diseases that we have somehow eliminated. But no, leprosy is alive and well and folks with it are living among us every day. But there is a cure today, and it’s all because of what happened in Carville.

Second – I thought leprosy was highly contagious. It’s not. It is spread by armadillos, so it is more common in climates where armadillos are present.Carville Louisiana

Third – it’s not politically correct to call it leprosy. It’s called Hansen’s Disease, and Carville is the home of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, and if you find yourself traveling near Baton Rouge, I really encourage you to stop in. You might learn something.

Carville LouisianaThis beautiful home was an abandoned plantation in 1894 when seven people diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease were put off a barge there and told not to leave. Of course, the house didn’t look so great at the time, and the people had no resources whatsoever for their survival.

Two years later, the Daughters of Charity, a religious order from New Orleans, came to minister to the patients. By 1921, the federal government took over. We have all heard of Father  Damien and the leper colony on isolated Molokai, but who knew this was going on in Louisiana.

Touring the Leper Colony in Carville Louisiana

On a tour of the museum and grounds, you obviously learn more about the disease. Body parts don’t fall off, but were often amputated because the disease leaves hands and feet with no sensitivity to pain and infection would set in after trauma. Deformities were also a result of nerve damage. Patients often lost their eyesight.

As difficult as the disease was physically, the emotional toll on the residents at Carville was worse. Those confined here lost their right to vote, did not have access to telephones, could send and receive mail only after it had been cooked in an oven, on and on. It was a big day when Coca-Cola decided Carville Louisianato deliver to the leprosarium, but they didn’t want their bottles back for fear of the disease. You’ll see hundreds of glass Coke bottles in landscaping around the property, even in the cemetery.carville louisiana

As a US government facility, research was a constant here, and some of it led to significant treatments and medication for diabetes. Finally in 1941 came the Miracle at Carville. Putome is the name of the drug developed here, and as a result, those now diagnosed with leprosy – and there are some 200 new cases a year in the US – can live a normal, healthy, productive life.

At its height, about 400 people lived here with leprosy, and over the years, more than 5000 patients spent time at Carville. The government closed the facility in 1999. Yet, there are 10 elderly residents remaining today. They’ve lived here all of their lives.


20 thoughts on “Visiting the Leper Colony at Carville, Louisiana

  1. Marsha Wilson

    Just read the book “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” and was amazed to find out about Carville! I have lived in Louisiana since 1988 and this was the first time I heard of this place. Thank you for your information and for sharing your travels there! I hope to travel around Louisiana and visit different historical sites and this place will be on my list.

    1. Diana Lambdin Meyer Post author

      Another good book is “Alone No Longer” by Stanley Stein. He was a resident at Carville and ran the newspaper there. I hope you find your way to Carville. It’s an extremely powerful place.

  2. Bill Knight

    I lived in Geismar, just a few miles away from Carville while in highschool and visited the colony many times. We went as a choir from our local church and sang in their V shaped chapel. I attended their play at Christmas where a blind man played the part of Jesus Christ. Our next door neighbor was a driver who went all over the country to pick up and drop off patients who were allowed to go home. It was an interesting place I will never forget. I am so pleased that they have found a way to stop this insidious disease.

  3. Lois Hardt

    Do you know how many people with Hansen’s Disease live at the facility in Carville at this time?
    Lois Hardt, April 13, 2013

  4. David

    Fascinating history. Use to travel up to Baton Rogue and Carville, LA when I worked on oil tankers in the 1985-1995 period. From the river you could see all the buildings and facilities. From the main road I’m sure you couldn’t see much. Always asked the River pilot questions about its history.

    1. Diana Lambdin Meyer Post author

      Thanks for your comments David. The river certainly played a role in Carville’s development and isolation over the years. It is a beautiful place once you get past those gates, despite the ugly history.

  5. charles marigny

    I recently discovered that my grandmother was a patient at Carville. is it any way today can I obtain the identity of her grave site marker, I was told she passed in 1974.

    1. Diana Lambdin Meyer Post author

      Hello Charles –
      Yes, there is a registry at Carville and the graves are beautifully marked and very well maintained. I suggest a phone call there or, if possible, a visit. It’s a lovely place.

    2. WMT

      I am a registered nurse from Louisiana and visited the Colony once before 1987. The BEST of Carville is that it drew kind men and women to care for those suffering and struggling from the disease…and eventually discovered a cure. Thank God for His mercy, compassion, comfort and loving kindness shown through many.

  6. Elizabeth

    I am an offspring of Hansen,s DIsease parents . I am very grateful for the valuable lessons I learned from my parents about the power of hope when human kindness exists

    1. Diana Lambdin Meyer Post author

      How nice to hear from you Elizabeth and to know of your parents’ love and hope. Best wishes.

  7. Joanne B.

    I was a student nurse at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in the late 1950s. We took a field trip to Carville and one of the residents took us around. There were only a few living there at the time since the medications had helped so many and they had left. A lot of people do not know the disease is still around.

  8. Beth Thomas Lincoln, NE

    I am doing a report for my United Methodist Women’s circle group. I loved the book, MOLOKAI and being a former nurse, I did know about Carville just because it was taught in nursing school.
    Reading the book led me to decide to report on leprosy since our United Methodist Women still take up an offering for leprosy. Too many times I’ve heard people say, “I thought leprosy is a thing of the past.” Therefore, I decided to give this report.

  9. Patsy

    I also read many other stories written by residents living here. They are very interesting stories. Another story I read was Molokai its a novel about the colony in Hawaii.
    I was a 2nd grader in(1960s) New Orleans, everyday I was sent to the principal’s office, to be checked because I have vitilgo. They always said “not today” they were checking me for leprosy. Because of my vitiligo ( white patches on my skin.

  10. Marsha Kisinger

    I had actually visited here in the mid 80’s and was surprised at what all I had learned. You could not tell that the patients there were lepers. They looked just like regular people. I had learned that it was not contagious. It was actually a city within itself. They had absolutely everything they needed. It was a great experience to educated on something that the mere mention of gave us so much fear.

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