When I was in grammar school, I remember hearing leper jokes: "How do you know that a hockey game at a leper colony has begun? There's a face-off in the center." "How do you know when a lepter is out of a game of poker? He throws down his hand." I had this vision of lepers as staggering creatures, whose skin and features hung off them like raggedy clothes, people who looked like a scarecrow that had been left out during too harsh a winter. I went to Catholic school so I had some vague idea that there were lepers in the Bible (don't know where...as my fellow-Catholic-raised friends know, Catholics aren't usually too well-versed in the Bible. If this is a surprise to you, well, I'll explain it someday). I knew there was a priest named Father Damien who did something with the lepers; I found this out when a boy named Damien transferred into our class and our teacher commented briefly on his name and Father Damien. I knew that you weren't supposed to touch lepers because then you could get it yourself, but I also knew that leprosy was no longer common and the odds of your running into a leper were pretty small. That's why we could joke about it. But I didn't know the real story.
Walking through the library one day, I saw a book called, The Colony. I immediately thought, "What colony?" My guess was Roanoake. I picked up the book and saw I was wrong. John Tayman's book was the story of Molokai, the leper colony off Hawaii. Well, obviously the time had come to learn all about this.
Tayman gets probably the biggest question out of the way early (unless you're a bacteriologist or infectious disease expert): you don't really contract leprosy by having casual contact with a leper. It's a chronic disease caused by a bacteria that behaves a lot like tuberculosis. You get it from "iarbonre particles expelled by someone with leprosy in an active state." But wait--if a person with tuberculosis sneezes on you, you still don't have to worry, because very few people have the disease in an active state. Most people who have it are not contagious. In fact, only people with a genetic predisposition to the disease can catch it, and those people make up less than five percent of the population. Finally, if you are one of those people and you do have a particle-expelling encounter with a leper and contract the disease, don't worry. By the 1970s, researchers had discovered drugs that, while they do not exactly cure leprosy, arrest its progress and prevent the complications that causes deformities and death.