Museum Offers 100 Years of Information about Hansen ’s Disease
A visit to the National Hansen’s Disease Museum in Carville, Louisiana, is highly recommended. The museum is located south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on the historic and beautiful “Indian Camp” plantation grounds that served as the Louisiana Lepers Home starting in 1894 until its acquisition by the federal government in 1921. It was known by various names including United States Marine Hospital #66, United States Public Health Service Hospital, and in 1984 the Gillis W. Long Hansen’s Disease Center honoring the Louisiana Democratic Representative who was a champion of the hospital, the patients, and the Daughters of Charity. The museum, opened for ten plus years, has ample human interest stories waiting to be discovered.
It provides an extensive overview of what life was like for the patients, the Daughters of Charity, and the medical staff, as well as for those from the surrounding area who worked at the Carville facility. Digital photo frames present a continuous loop of pictures and commentaries on life in Carville. Artifacts educate the public about medical/therapeutic devices and prosthetic equipment used by the staff to help patients improve their quality of life. Pictures and exhibits trace the treatments and cures for leprosy that were discovered in Carville. Photos and posters relate stories of Carville activists—patients who refused to be limited by their disease or the laws imposed upon them. The rooms and walls of the museum are arranged with photos and information, including patient leisure time activities; display tables hold a hundred years of physical history; and videos telling the Carville story are available for viewing.
Elizabeth Schexnyder, curator of the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, offers a generous wealth of knowledge about the hospital and facilities, the patients, their stories, and their disease. Guided walking tours on designated Fridays, self-guided driving tour of the grounds with audio CD or flash drive. Staff-guided tours by appointment. Call for more information, 225-642-1950. The museum is open to the public free of charge, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 am to 4 pm and is closed on federal holidays. Its collections are accessible to scholars researching Hansen’s disease, the public health hospital, the Daughters of Charity, and the medical staff. It is a touchstone for those who had relatives in Carville and who are now curious about their roots, and it is an education for any who want to discover the invincible strength of the human spirit rising from adversity.
for directions and more information about this free national museum.
Click on one of the pictures to open up the gallery.
An Era Ends: The Last HD Patients Leave Carville
In December 1894, seven men and women from New Orleans were brought by barge in the middle of the night to the abandoned Indian Camp Plantation in Iberville parish. They were shipped there under cover of darkness because they had leprosy. Their feared condition had left them isolated and often untreated. It was the hope of Dr. Isadore Dyer Tulane dermatologist that once the patients were housed in a dedicated facility they could be cared for and perhaps cured. This hope was long in coming. The resident doctor quit after only a year and the patients lingered in the slave cabins of the abandoned plantation with little professional assistance In 1896, four Daughters of Charity nurses were recruited to attend to the patients’ personal and hygienic needs. This inauspicious beginning was the inauguration of what became a world class facility for the treatment and eventual cure of leprosy. The Indian Camp Plantation staffed by the Daughters of Charity became the state owned Louisiana Leprosarium, then the United States Public Health Services Hospital. In later years it was called the Gillis Long Hansen’s Disease Center. No matter the name, for 127 years the facility cared for and housed 5000 Hansen ’s disease patients from the United States and beyond. This summer on July 28, 2015, the last of the Carville HD residents traveled in daylight to an elder care facility in Baton Rouge. The end of an era had come. The institution now houses a National Guard base including a Youth Challenge program. The National Hansen’s Disease Museum highlighting the long brave history of the hospital remains on the Carville campus.
Carville, the hospital, is closed, but work continues in Baton Rouge where patients from within and beyond the United States receive first class outpatient treatment and research into Hansen’s disease is carried on.
First Advocates: The Daughters of Charity and the Louisiana Leper Home
Editor's note: My interest in the story of Carville began with my desire to learn my grandfather's (Edmond Landry, patient 1924-1932) story. When I did that, my mother made only one request, :"I hope that whatever you do, you won't forget the Daughters of Charity. This is an attempt to honor that request with an article by Reagan Laiche whose historical studies have focused on the work of the Daughters of Charity at Carville.)
The Louisiana Leper Home, the National Leprosarium or simply Carville. In 1894, this isolated place, surrounded by the Mississippi River seventy miles northwest of New Orleans, became home to those diagnosed with leprosy and outcast from society.
The American Legion, the 40&8 and the Carville Community
Almost 100 years ago on September 16, 1919, the United States Congress chartered the American Legion as “a patriotic veteran’s organization…. [f]ocusing on service to veterans, service members and communities”. That simple statement from the Legion’s website only begins to illuminate the work of the organization in the past century, but it does presage an important event for the Carville, Louisiana, hospital community for much of the last hundred years.
On a Sunday in June 1931, twelve years after its formation, the Legion came to Carville. Stanley Stein in his memoir Alone No Longer recalls the occasion when, “the barbed wire which
cut us off from the world began to sag.” (p. 117) A patients’ group of 20+ veterans of the Spanish American War and the Great War met with Sam Jones, Louisiana State Commander of the American Legion, and other Louisiana Legionnaires to express their needs and air their grievances as veterans and forgotten human beings. It was perhaps the first time that a group of Carville residents, including my grandfather Edmond Landry (a WWI veteran, aka Gabe Michael), had bonded as a force to advocate on behalf of themselves and their fellow patients. On that day the residents found a new friend and ally in the American Legion and a new lease on life.
Sam Jones invited the group to form their own Legion post and promised to connect Carville with the outside world. Within weeks the Legion had invited baseball teams from Baton Rouge and environs to play on the Carville diamond and had sponsored bands to perform for hospital dances.
The 40&8 and Carville: A Rich Tradition
When Tom Adams, a member of the American Legion and the 40 & 8 and the Nationale Directeur of The Star Project learned that I was writing an article on the history of Carville and the Legion, he volunteered to read my article and to offer his own reflections. The following is his more complete history of Carville, the Legion and the 40&8 from 1931 to the present.CM.
It is intriguing that 20+ veterans would vault patient concerns at Carville to national prominence through a relationship with a newly-formed American Legion. It was fortuitous that someone as politically influential as Sam Jones, Department (Louisiana State) Commander of the Legion and later Governor of Louisiana, could lead the charge on behalf of Carville patients. At their first meeting with Commander Jones, patients expressed concerns over lack of recreational activities and an inadequate hospital, both of which would be promptly addressed by the Commander.
An article Commander Jones wrote for the Legion's national magazine represented the first time someone from the "outside" advocated improvements to living conditions at Carville. The Legion wasted little time in bolstering its relationship with Carville patients and promoting legislation to affect changes at Carville. In less than one year from the initial meetings with patients in 1931, the Legion had successfully lobbied in Washington for a new hospital facility at Carville that was completed in 1935. On a smaller but no less important scale, the Legion gained state support to install the first telephone for patient use in Carville.
Photos courtesy of Tom Adams.