Leper colonies or houses became widespread in the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe and India, and often run by monastic orders. Historically, leprosy has been greatly feared because it causes visible disfigurement and disability, was incurable, and was commonly believed to be highly contagious. A leper colony administered by a Roman Catholic order was often called a lazar house, after Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease (HD), is a long-term infection by the bacterium Mycobacterium leprae or Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Initially, infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way for 5 to 20 years. Symptoms that develop include granulomas of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain, which can lead to the loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection due to unnoticed wounds. Weakness and poor eyesight may also be present.
Leprosy is spread between people, this is thought to occur through a cough or contact with fluid from the nose of an infected person. Contrary to popular belief, it is not highly contagious. The two main types of disease are based on the number of bacteria present: paucibacillary and multibacillary. The two types are differentiated by the number of poorly pigmented, numb skin patches present.
Leprosy has affected humanity for thousands of years. The disease takes its name from the Greek word λέπρᾱ (léprā), from λεπῐ́ς(lepís; “scale”), while the term “Hansen’s disease” is named after the Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen. Social stigma has been associated with leprosy for much of history, which continues to be a barrier to self-reporting and early treatment. Some consider the word “leper” offensive, preferring the phrase “person affected with leprosy”.
Some colonies historically were located on mountains or in remote locations in order to ensure quarantine, some on main roads, where there was hope for donations that would be used for their upkeep. Debate exists over the conditions found within historical leper colonies; while they are currently thought to have been grim and neglected places, there are some indications that life within a leper colony or house was no worse than the life of other, non-quarantined individuals. There is even doubt that the current definition of leprosy can be retrospectively applied to the Medieval condition. What was classified as leprosy then covers a wide range of skin conditions that would be classified as distinctly different afflictions today.
Some leper colonies issued their own money (such as tokens), in the belief that allowing lepers to handle regular money could spread the disease. However, leprosy is not easily transmitted by casual contact or objects; actual transmission only happens through long-term, constant, intimate contact with leprosy sufferers and not through contact with everyday objects used by sufferers.
Special leper colony money was used between 1901 and around 1955. The oldest money known was made in 1901 for use in three leper colonies of Colombia, called Agua de Dios, Cano de Loro, and Contratación. Five denominations of coins were issued: 2.5 centavos, 5 centavos, 10 centavos, 20 centavos, and 50 centavos. “República de Colombia 1901” was engraved. These coins were issued after the first leprosy congress in Berlin in 1897. Between 1919 and 1952, special coins were used in a Panama Canal Zone leper colony called Palo Seco Colony. One cent, 5 cents, 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents, and one dollar coins with holes in the centers were made in the United States.
Other countries that minted leper money include the Philippines; in 1913, special aluminum coins were minted, japan; in 1919, special coins were made in Tama Zenshoen Sanatorium, and Malaysia; in 1936, 5 cents, 10 cents and 1 dollar notes were issued in the Sungei Buloh Settlement. Leper colony money is also known to have existed in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Korea, Nigeria, Thailand, and Venezuela.
The original reason for leper colony money was to prevent leprosy in healthy individuals. In 1938, Dr. Gordon Alexander Ryrie in Malaysia proved that paper money was not contaminated with leprosy bacteria, and all the leper colony banknotes were burned in that country. Separating people by placing them in leper colonies still occurs in places such as India, China, and Africa. However, most colonies have closed, since over time it has been determined that leprosy isn’t easily passed along. Leper colony money can still be found sometimes and is an interesting find for collectors while telling a story of our world’s history.