November 18, 1905

The First Leprosy Patients Arrive on Penikese Island

On this day in 1905, five leprosy patients arrived on Penikese Island in Buzzard's Bay, the site of the first and only leprosarium in Massachusetts. Over the next 16 years, 36 victims of leprosy, or Hansen's disease, lived on the isolated island, along with a handful of caregivers. Dr. Frank Parker and his wife, Marion, went to great lengths to make the patients comfortable, providing good food, fresh air, exercise, entertainment, and nursing, but it was nearly impossible to overcome the stigma and social ostracism associated with leprosy. Still, the island produced stories of great courage, kindness, and fortitude. The colony closed when the federal government opened a leprosy hospital in Louisiana. 

Leprosy was practically unheard of in Massachusetts until the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Leprosy, a contagious and incurable disease that causes lesions, deformities, and if untreated by modern drugs, death, has been known and feared since ancient times. For generations, patients suffered not only from physical debilitation, but from the misconception that the disease was caused by uncleanliness. Until the discovery of antibiotics, which effectively control the disease, it was public policy to remove people with leprosy from their homes and communities and send them live out their lives in quarantined settings like the one on Penikese Island, located 12 miles off Cape Cod.

Leprosy was practically unheard of in Massachusetts until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when increased immigration brought people from countries where the disease was more prevalent. Even then, the number of reported cases was low. Since 95% of the population is naturally immune to the disease, it spread slowly. Still, residents were terrified by the thought that there was even one leper in their midst. Officials deported any newcomers found to have the disease and confined other victims to poorhouse attics or quarantine centers in Boston. By 1904, when the number of reported cases reached double-digits, the state decided it had to create an isolated facility to care for people with leprosy.

People on the mainland protested vigorously that the presence of lepers would "damage their vested interests," but this time the state held firm.

Initial proposals met stiff resistance. The first plan was to send patients to the State Infirmary in Tewksbury. The Infirmary trustees fiercely resisted, refusing to "consent to such transfers, thereby exposing 1,500 to 1,800 inmates . . . to that much dreaded disease." In December, the Commonwealth bought a farm in Brewster to use as a leprosy hospital, but the plan was dropped in the face of intense opposition from Cape Codders. The public meeting called to discuss the matter was the most heavily attended in the state's history; so many people traveled from the Cape to Boston that the railroad added a special train.

Finally, in July of 1905, the state purchased Penikese Island in Buzzard's Bay. People on the mainland protested vigorously that the presence of these patients would "damage their vested interests," but this time the state held firm.

For two years in the 1870s, Harvard had used the island to conduct a natural history summer school. When the state took it over, workmen converted school buildings into residences for the director, farmer-boatman, housekeeper, and male and female attendants who made up the paid staff. On the west side of the island, or "the other side" as it came to be called, four one-story cottages were built for the patients.

Dr. Parker went to extraordinary lengths to see that the patients had whatever they desired, from special foods to private gardens.

On November 18th, without ceremony, the first patients arrived: two Chinese men, two Cape Verdean men, and a Cape Verdean woman. Their number increased temporarily in March when the woman gave birth to a baby; 20 days later, the healthy infant was shipped to the mainland.

The first physician resigned after two years, when he could not tolerate living in such isolation. In his place came the remarkable Frank and Marion Parker. Dr. Parker had practiced medicine in Malden for 22 years; his wife had been prominent in social and charitable circles there. Enthusiastic and devoted to their charges, they transformed daily life on the island. The couple realized that their patients were "prisoners in effect, but not criminals" and did their best to improve their lot. Dr. Parker went to extraordinary lengths to see that the patients had whatever they desired, from special foods to private gardens.

To build their self-esteem, he gave them paying jobs so they could purchase personal items from stores in New Bedford. To protect the patients' dignity, he prohibited visitors or those passing on ships from gawking or taking photographs. Marion equipped the leprosarium with radios, record players, books, and magazines and led religious services herself until she found a clergyman willing to come to the island.

By sharing news from the Marconi News Service and communicating with operators on other islands and on passing ships, Archie gave the Penikese residents their only contact with "ordinary people."

One of the better-known residents of Penikese was 16-year-old Archie Thomas, who arrived in 1912. Newspapers widely reported the story of his widowed but healthy mother who chose to go into isolation with her only child. A bright boy with an interest in physics and electricity, he received a two-way radio from the New Bedford Women's Society. By sharing news from the Marconi News Service and communicating with operators on other islands and on passing ships, Archie gave the Penikese residents their only contact with "ordinary people." When Archie died in 1915, the news was slow to reach the mainland — no one else knew how to use his radio.

Over the years, the average number of patients living on the island was 14; the inmate population peaked at 17 in the mid 1910s. By 1921, when the U.S. government established a national leprosarium in Louisiana, there were two women and 11 men remaining in the Massachusetts colony. They traveled by tugboat to New Bedford (where the local paper reported that "the morbidly curious . . . gathered around the hospital car while the lepers were making their way to it"), then by hospital train to Louisiana. The Parkers remained behind to disinfect the island and look for another situation. Hospitals were fearful of their long exposure to leprosy and would not employ them. They had no better luck rebuilding a private practice. After six months, they were forced to leave Massachusetts to live with their son in Montana.

The state put Penikese up for sale. But concern about contagion was so strong that no buyers were found. Finally in 1924, officials decided to raze the buildings and make the island into a bird sanctuary. More than 50 years later, the island became another sort of sanctuary — for troubled teenagers and most recently for people recovering from addiction.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.

Sources

"The Exiles of Penikese Island: Politics, Prejudice and the Public Health," by Paul Cyr in Spinner, 1984.

Penikese: Island of Hope, by I. Thomas Buckley (Published by the author, 1997).

Themes

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