Hansen's Disease Patients at Kalawao and Kalaupapa

Young boys during early years at Kalawao.

Young boys during early years at Kalawao.

NPS archives.

Photo of shoes modified to fit patient disfigured by Hansen's Disease

Shoes modified to fit the wearer gives evidence of a struggle to maintain a life in the face of the disease.

NPS archives

It is the year 1920. You have been diagnosed with leprosy. What goes through your mind as you realize you will be taken from your home, job, parents, wife or husband, children, friends, and sent away, perhaps forever? How do you comprehend your fate—that of separation, sickness, and eventual death?

When leprosy was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands in the early nineteenth century, its victims knew no age, gender, or social boundaries. Ethnic association did seem a factor in that Hawaiians had never been exposed to the disease and had little immunity to it. By the 1880s Hansen’s disease had reached epidemic proportions within the Hawaiian community.


From January 1866 until the lifting of the confinement laws in 1969, Hansen’s disease patients living on the Kalaupapa Peninsula reflected a cross section of society throughout the Hawaiian Islands. From farmers to clergymen to relatives of Hawaiian royalty, all faced the double tragedy of having acquired the disease and then being forced to live—and die—far away from their family and friends.

As the ramifications of the disease unfolded, husbands were separated from their wives and children, diseased children were removed from their mothers and fathers, and babies born to patients were immediately taken by health officials to be placed in the care of relatives or taken to orphanages. Although Hawai`i did more for its people with Hansen’s disease than any country in history up to that time, it was still a frightening experience for the patients and difficult for the health care workers and clergy who ministered to the sick.

Following the first group of 12 patients that arrived at Kalawao on January 6, 1866, up to 8,000 people were sent to the Kalaupapa Peninsula. Each one of these people left behind friends and family, perhaps spouses and children, when they were exiled.

The Board of Health records over the years reveal how the disease knew no racial or ethnic boundaries. In the Board of Health’s annual report for 1903, the records show the total patient population at Kalaupapa to be 888—541 males and 347 females. Of that number, 459 were Hawaiian men, and 338 Hawaiian women. Among the other major racial groups represented were 40 Chinese men and three women; 12 Portuguese men, two women; and seven "American" men and one woman.

Photo of an old spoon modified for a person disfigured by Hansen's Disease

To stay self sufficient, day to day tools like this spoon were adapted to let the sick patients do for themselves.

NPS archives.

In 1924, the patient population had been reduced by almost half. Among the 485 patients, the largest racial groups represented were 169 Hawaiian men, 101 Hawaiian women; 53 part-Hawaiian men, 43 women; 28 Japanese men, four women; and 24 Filipino men and one woman. Today the numbers of former Hansen’s disease patients living at Kalaupapa are dwindling. In the future the memories of all those who lived and died at Kalawao and Kalaupapa will survive through historical accounts, writings, videotaped interviews, and photographs.

Click here to read Hansen's disease patients first hand accounts of life at Kalaupapa.

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