When you’re living in a new place, or even a place you’ve been in for quite some time, it’s always worthwhile to explore something you haven’t gotten around to yet. Late this summer I finally got to the Leprosy Museum, something I’ve been wanting to go to for as long as I’ve been in Bergen! I’ve got an interest in medicine, and I used to work for the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service back in the U.S. Today I want to share the Leprosy Museum experience with you… although if you want to experience it for yourself, you’ll have to be patient till they reopen in May.
See some of the many people affected by leprosy. Illustration from J.L. Losting’s Leprosy Atlas.
Photo: Stand Hiestand
The Leprosy Museum
It’s quite a bit of reading, but a very interesting experience to go to Bergen’s Leprosy Museum and learn about the types of leprosy, the patients who were affected, and Bergen’s role in the history of the disease. “The leprosy archives in Bergen are part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme” according to the Museum’s website. The museum itself was once St. George’s Hospital, the city’s oldest leprosy hospital.
The disease caused undue stigma, due to its disfiguring nature and the myth that it is highly contagious. While leprosy is caused by contagious bacteria (likely passed through respiratory droplets), the majority of exposed individuals would never develop symptoms as most people (up to 95%) are naturally immune. The remaining 5% are unfortunately genetically predisposed to develop leprosy if infected by the bacteria. But, don’t be alarmed, as you may know, leprosy is now curable with multi-drug therapies.
Museum Interior. Photo: Stand Hiestand
Types of Leprosy
There are multiple systems for classifying the types of leprosy. The system discussed in the museum categorizes leprosy into two types: tuberculoid and lepromatous. Apparently this is essentially describing the disease based on the patient’s immune response. If the immune response limits the disease to a few skin lesions (sores), the leprosy was classified as tuberculoid. If the immune response was poor in a patient, the leprosy caused widespread lesions and nodules (lumps) and affected the not only the skin, but nerves, and other organs; it was referred to in this case as lepromatous. For more information about these types as well as more recent classification systems, take a look at this link.
Stand tries to get artsy with the museum displays. Photo: Stand Hiestand
Bergen and leprosy
From 1850 to 1900 Bergen had three hospitals dedicated to leprosy. It had the highest concentration of leprosy patients in Europe. And it had Armauer Hansen, a Norwegian physician who discovered the leprosy-causing bacterium Mycobacterium leprae in 1873. This is why leprosy is sometimes known as “Hansen’s disease”.
Ready to head to the Museum?
Well, the bad news is they don’t have regular opening hours during winter, so they don’t open up again till next season (May 15th 2016). That may be part of why it took me so long to get to see it! If you’re feeling inspired, mark it on your calendars and go in May, I will try to remind you again then!
The good news is it’s only 35 NOK with your student ID.
The address (when it’s open) is: Kong Oscars gate 59, 5835 Bergen
Museum interior. Photo: Stand Hiestand
More on Leprosy:
For anyone out there who, like me, is an avid podcast listener: check out Sawbone’s episode on Leprosy here:
Sawbones is one of my favorite podcasts, chock full of medical history and silliness. If anyone checks it out and likes it, I would love to know, comment below!