Leper Colony Coins

This page shares the content of a presentation on the coins issued to patients at various leper colonies in the first half of the 20th century.
It was delivered at a Saskatoon Coin Club meeting by Richard Bibby in February 2019.

NOTE: Click on any photo to load a much larger version of either the obverse or reverse sides of the coin.
Once that photo has loaded on screen, if you click it again you will see a huge photo which allows you to see every fine detail.

Article Index

Part 1: Introduction

Part 1: Introduction
For a bit of background, leprosy is a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae and it affects the skin, peripheral nerves, the upper respiratory tract and the eyes. However, contrary to popular belief, leprosy is not highly contagious, and it does not cause limbs to rot and fall off.

Deformities that are usually associated with leprosy are caused by secondary infections that go unnoticed due to numbness in a limb, which then requires amputation. But, if leprosy is caught in the early stages, it is curable, and it averts most of the disabilities caused by the disease. The exact mechanism for transferring the disease is not known though tradition says it is through physical contact. More recent study, however, has indicated that there may be two other possible means of transmission, first is through the respiratory route and second is via insects.

People who have contracted leprosy are usually separated from the rest of society for the protection of those that do not have leprosy. Certainly, at the time of Christ, those people that contracted leprosy were not only separated from society but also ostracized. The reason for this is found in Leviticus 13:45-6 which says that a leper is unclean and shall dwell alone. Therefore, it was easy for people to think that lepers were evil and guilty of committing a very serious sin. Even though this is a biblical reference it is not the sole reason for the ostracization of lepers. The stigmatization of lepers was much more a reflection of two things: first was a lack of understanding about the disease of leprosy and how it spreads: second, the leprosy referred to in the book of Leviticus was different from the leprosy that is experienced in more modern times (the time of Christ to present day). So, they are two different diseases expressed by the same name.

Leprosy is a disease that is generally associated with poorer countries, such as India where approximately 700 informal colonies exist today. In India, those that have had or still have the disease can lose their jobs, friends, family, spouse and be excluded from obtaining a driver's license or riding on any public transport. But lest you think that there are no leper colonies in North America you would be wrong. One of the last leper colonies in the U.S. was located on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, which still had 6 lepers living there, voluntarily, as of 2015. The province of British Columbia also had a leper colony on Bentinck island. So, leprosy can be found anywhere around the world.

The general concept, that we have, of people in a leper colony is that they were generally not cared for and were neglected. The leper colonies and the people in them still required some sort of income in order to survive. Generally, it is assumed that about 2000 years ago, the leper colonies lived on donations received through begging and other philanthropy, but there must also have been some sort of industry whereby the lepers and the colony could survive. However, there is some recent archeological evidence to suggest that conditions in these quarantined colonies was not much different from the communities of the general population. Despite this there is a continuing general disdain for those people who have leprosy.

By the mid-1800's the country of Colombia was the first country that started to provide state sponsored support to lepers who were living in a Colombian leper colony, and could not support themselves. As mentioned earlier, one reason for segregation was the belief that leprosy was easily transferred through physical contact with either a leper or an object that they had touched. The odd thing here is that despite this perception the leper colonies continued to use regular state issued currency, so finally, Colombia, in 1901, created the first money specifically meant for a leper colony. Other countries such as the Philippines, India, Venezuela and Brazil soon followed suit.

This money served two purposes: first, it served as an internal currency for the specific leper colony. Second, since the currency for the leper colony was only valid within that colony, it forced the lepers to stay in the colony since their money was not useable outside the colony. Third, it gave the psychological belief that this further isolation of the colonies would reduce the risk of spreading leprosy to the wider population. This measure was brought in even though, for centuries earlier, the general population had been using currency and other items that had been in contact with lepers.

Most of the leper colony money, no matter what country issued it, was paper. Even so there were a very few colonies that had coins minted for them. All of this currency, coin or paper, was only issued for approximately fifty years and was generally withdrawn from circulation in the mid-1950's. Once it was withdrawn it was then destroyed.

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