Damien the Leper (Part 3 of 3)

This is part three of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part one and part two.

In March 1888, Damien received a visit from Dr. Prince A. Morrow, a prominent New York dermatologist and syphilologist best known today as an early proponent of sex education.1 Morrow, then a fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine, had written the month before requesting an account of the progression of Hansen’s disease from Damien’s earliest symptoms through to its (at the time) inevitable conclusion. Damien, who was now so far along in his illness that he could no longer hold a pen, dictated the full account.2

Damien weeks before his death, photographed by William Brigham.

Damien weeks before his death, photographed by William Brigham.” In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien described the beginnings of the illness as an itching on the skin of his face and legs. Then, in the early 1880s, he began to experience a dull, throbbing pain in his left leg that eventually gave away to numbness. In the beginning of 1885, Damien accidentally scalded his foot with boiling water. He felt nothing. One of the earliest signs of Hansen’s disease is loss of sensation in the extremities, and Damien began to suspect the worst. Examination by doctors confirmed his suspicions: he had Hansen’s disease.3

It was a devastating diagnosis. Being diagnosed with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii during the 19th and early 20th centuries was akin to being charged with a crime. Those afflicted with Hansen’s disease were legally required to turn themselves over to state incarceration at the Molokai settlement, leaving behind their families, friends, property, and livelihoods. The government enforced occasional sweeps of the island to ferret out ill people who were unwilling to turn themselves in.4

It is now known that Hansen’s disease is not a particularly contagious bacterial infection. About 95% of the population is naturally immune to Mycobacterium leprae, and most of the remaining 5% experience a relatively mild version of Hansen’s disease called tuberculoid leprosy. A small number of infected individuals, including Damien, are not so lucky. Due to a combination of genetic susceptibility and long-term exposure, possibly exacerbated by poor sanitation, Damien contracted the most serious form of Hansen’s disease: lepromatous. If left untreated, lepromatous Hansen’s disease causes large, insensate skin lesions eventually leading to extreme disfiguration of the extremities and face; nerve damage; breakdown of muscle tissue; and death.5

As if the disease weren’t terrible enough, the isolation of Hansen’s disease patients produced even more anguish. A 1907 government pamphlet on the Molokai settlement remarks, “the separation which the disease causes in families and among friends, is its most distressing feature.”6 By blaming the disease for the “distressing” practice of incarcerating victims of Hansen’s disease, Hawaiian policymakers and medical leaders abdicated responsibility for their actions. It was not the disease that separated sufferers from their healthy families, it was the tight grip of social mores and the law.7

Of course, the law did not affect the Hawaiian population equally. Even at the time of the Molokai settlement’s peak population (just over 1, 200 Hansen’s disease patients), only a tiny percentage was white.8 This disparity was most likely due to lower levels of genetic resistance among indigenous Hawaiians, compounded by poverty, as well as poor access to clean water, sanitation, and professional medical services.9 At the time, however, the high rate of infection among the native Hawaiian population was used to prop up colonialist bias and moral judgment.

Damien on his deathbed, photographed by the settlement physician, Sidney Bourne Swift. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien on his deathbed, photographed by the settlement physician, Sidney Bourne Swift. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Leprosy has had a moral dimension for almost as long as it has existed as a human disease. Like many illnesses, leprosy was often seen as a sign of divine displeasure and sinfulness. Throughout medieval and early modern times, leprosy was connected in particular to sexual deviancy and was even thought to be a venereal disease linked to syphilis.10

While the medical field had largely discarded this theory by the end of the 19th century, the close association between sexual immorality and leprosy was still a widely held belief among the white population of Hawaii. Indigenous Hawaiians, with their freewheeling approach to sex, were clearly at fault for their own sickness. Even Damien drew the connection: “It is an admitted fact,” he wrote, “that the great majority, if not the total number of all pure natives, have the syphilitic blood, very well developed in their system…as we are now, it developed it self [sic] in some instance in the way of what we called leprosy.”11

Damien was a man of his time, as this unflattering quote proves, but he was an extraordinary one. Others bemoaned the sorry state of leprous Hawaiians from a safe distance. Dr. Morrow’s interest in the Molokai settlement, for example, extended only as far as his scientific curiosity.12 But when someone asked Damien if he wanted to be cured of his leprosy, his answer was no: not if the price of the cure was abandoning Molokai and his work among his fellow sufferers.13 It was this very flawed, very human bravery—what some called recklessness—that made Damien a popular saint and martyr long before his canonization.

In previous posts, we have seen Damien through the eyes of his most vocal critics and poetic admirers, religious authorities, and now medical experts. He was a man who attracted the words of others, through his work, his circumstances, and his personality. But of himself, Damien typically had little to say. “As for me,” he wrote to his older brother during his 11th year as pastor of the Molokai settlement, “I am still almost the same, except for my beard which is beginning to turn a little grey.”14


1. For a full discussion of Morrow’s contribution to the early sex education movement in the United States, see Bryan Strong, “Ideas of the Early Sex Education Movement in America, 1890-1920,” History of Education Quarterly, 12 (1972): 129-61.

2.Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 226-227.

3.Daws, Holy Man, 160-163.

4. Daws, Holy Man, 142-150.

5. Warwick J. Britton, “Leprosy,” Encyclopedia of Life Sciences, online ed. (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2002), 1.

6. Hawaii Board of Health, The Molokai Settlement, Territory of Hawaii: Villages Kalaupapa and Kalawao (Honolulu, issued by the Board of Health of the Territory of Hawaii, 1907), 3. Emphasis added.

7. While segregation of Hansen’s disease patients has long been considered unnecessary and unethical, particularly with the development of effective antibiotic treatment, recent studies suggest that segregation may never have been a successful method for reducing the incidence of Hansen’s disease. New research has shown that the bacteria responsible for Hansen’s disease can survive for long periods of time inside amoebae that are commonly found in standing water and soil. This may explain why leprosy incidence in the Hawaiian Islands only began to decrease in the 1910s, when improvements in quality of life and sanitation began to trickle down to the wider Hawaiian population. See William H. Wheat, Amy L. Casali, Vincent Thomas et al. “Long-term Survival and Virulence of Mycobacterium leprae in Amoebal Cysts,” PL0S Neglected Tropical Diseases, Vol. 8, No. 12 (2014).

8. Daws, Holy Man, 250.

9. In addition, white sufferers of Hansen’s disease had greater mobility and often left the Hawaiian Islands to seek treatment in the U.S. or abroad. One government doctor even proposed setting up an official fund to pay the fares of diseased white men to leave Hawaii. Daws, Holy Man, 148.

10. Saul Nathanial Brody, The Disease of the Soul: Leprosy in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 1974), 41; 60-61. See also Luke Demaitre, Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: A Malady of the Whole Body (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007), 209.

11. Daws, 148-149.

12. Dr. Morrow ultimately advocated against the U.S. annexation of Hawaii from a sanitation perspective. See Prince A. Morrow, “Leprosy and Hawaiian Annexation,” The North American Review, Vol. 165, No. 49d2 (Nov. 1897).

13. Daws, Holy Man, 216.

14. Daws, Holy Man, 137.

The Good Man of Religion (Part 2 of 3)

This is part two of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part one and part three.

Our last post saw Protestants Robert Louis Stevenson and the Rev. Dr. Hyde in a pitched, public battle for religious missionary Father Damien’s reputation. But what did fellow Catholics think of Damien?

Bishop Hermann Koeckmann and Father Leonor Fouesnel. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Bishop Hermann Koeckmann and Father Leonor Fouesnel. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

“Good man of religion, good priest,” wrote Father Fouesnel, the vice-provincial of the mission at Honolulu, “but…sometimes indiscreet zeal leads him to say, to write, and even to do things which ecclesiastical authority can only criticize.”1 Damien was constantly at loggerheads with his superiors Fouesnel and Hermann Koeckemann, bishop of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts on Hawaii, throughout his time at the Molokai leper settlement, and this is was nothing new.

Damien, born Jozef de Veuster on January 3, 1840 to a farming family in Tremelo, Belgium, was driven, strong, and competitive from a young age. He followed his elder brother Auguste into the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in 1860 and quickly strove to surpass him. When Auguste fell ill and was unable to make the trip to Hawaii to begin his mission, Damien literally jumped at the chance to take his place. He even went over the head of his direct superior by writing a letter to the father-general of the Congregation, much to his superior’s annoyance. By October 1863, he was onboard a ship destined for Hawaii. He was only 23 years old and had yet to be ordained.2

Damien at twenty-three, just before he left Europe. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Damien at twenty-three, just before he left Europe. In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

This first step towards Molokai set the tone for Damien’s often-fraught relationship with his superiors throughout his life. Damien was impolitic, demanding, and at times even imperious. He did not request supplies or aid, he demanded them; when he got the desired materials or money, he used them as he saw fit without waiting for approval. His intentions were generally good: for example, Damien once took lumber intended for the chapel in Pelekunu, a town on the other side of Molokai, to perform much-needed repairs on the chapel at the leper settlement instead.

But the biggest bone of contention was Damien’s extraordinary international media presence, particularly towards the close of the 1880s when Damien’s terminal Hansen’s disease diagnosis had been confirmed and publicized. This massive surge in popularity was accompanied by an equally vast outpouring in donations, directed not towards the Congregation’s mission, but to Damien himself.

“I see with displeasure,” wrote Bishop Koeckemann in early 1887, “that the newspapers which admire you exaggerate and put things in a false light, without taking account of what the government and others do—the mission also has its share.” Koeckemann and Fouesnel were convinced that Damien was fanning the flames of publicity, writing “to the four winds” about the miserable state of the leper settlement and insinuating that the mission and the government were shirking their duties.3

Damien was taken aback by his superior’s disapproval as much as by the media attention. He believed his actions to be encouraging charity, not publicity—and in fact, only a few letters by Damien were published during his life. His circumstances, rather than his words, were what aroused public interest. The press presented Damien as a hero of self-sacrifice: losing first his freedom of movement, then his health, and finally his life.

Still, after Damien’s death, neither Koeckemann nor Fouesnel were interested in pursuing a sainthood for Damien. All agreed that, after the press had labeled Damien a “hero” and “martyr of charity,” everything had been said. “The rest,” Koeckemann concluded, delicately leaving out all mention of Damien’s personal faults, “only complicates matters.” As Koeckemann’s successor, Bishop Gulston Ropert observed, “Even the beginnings of the process of beatification would have to wait until everyone who knew Damien well was dead.”4

Indeed, the process of Damien’s canonization did not begin until 1977, when Pope Paul IV declared him to be venerable (the first step towards full sainthood). It would take another three decades and two posthumous miracles for Damien to be officially recognized as the patron saint of Hansen’s disease patients.5

The feast day chosen for the new Saint Damien was not the day of his death, as is typical for Catholic saints. Instead, Damien is venerated on May 10, the anniversary of his arrival on the island of Molokai—a moment that many regarded as a death sentence far worse than physical death.6 In the final post, we will look at Hansen’s disease on Hawaii, as well as the progression of Damien’s own illness and death.

Read part three.


1. Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 136.

2. Philibert Tauvel, Rtather Damien: Apostle of the Lepers of Molokai, Priest of the Cognregation of the Sacred Hearts (London: Art and Book Co., 1904), 29-31.

3. Daws, 191.

4. Daws, 245-246. Beatification is the second of three formal steps in the process leading towards sainthood.

5. Rachel Donadio, “Benedict Canonizes 5 New Saints,” The New York Times, October 11, 2009. For more about the second miracle, which was documented in the Hawaii Medical Journal, see “Vatican Affirms Miraculous Healing Attributed to Blessed Father Damien.” Catholic News Agency. May 1, 2008.

6.In fact, at the time when Damien left for Molokai, the government of Hawaii was deliberating a law that would declare confirmed Hansen’s disease victim legally dead. Daws, 73.

The Strange Case of Father Damien (Part 1 of 3)

Today we have part one of a guest post written by Anna Weerasinghe, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School studying the history and theology of Hansen’s disease. Read part two and part three.

“The simple truth is, [Father Damien] was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong, and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island. He had no hand in the reforms and improvement inaugurated, which were the work of our Board of Health…and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness.”1   

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

Robert Louis Stevenson and the Reverend Doctor Charles McEwen Hyde. In In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So wrote the Reverend Doctor Charles Hyde on August 2, 1889, just months after Father Damien’s death. In just a few weeks on May 11, “Father Damien Way” (33rd Street between First and Second Avenues) will join the ranks of the numerous public memorials named in Saint Damien’s honor.2 Based on Hyde’s colorful description, Damien hardly sounds like the kind of man to be sainted for his charitable work in Hawaii among sufferers of Hansen’s disease (better known as leprosy). Nor does Damien seem like the kind of celebrity whose death would ignite a firestorm of controversy, culminating in a pitched battle of wits between the Reverend Doctor Hyde and world-renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson that would help catapult its subject to enduring international fame.

So just who was Father Damien? A saint or a sinner? A hero or a victim? In this series of blog posts, we will get to know the many sides of Father Damien—the man, the saint, the Hansen’s disease victim—and the divisive forces that shaped his life and legacy.

When Father Damien first arrived at the Kalawao leper settlement on the isolated Hawaiian island of Molokai in 1873, he caught the attention of the press almost immediately. As the first western religious missionary, Catholic or Protestant, to live within the leper settlement despite being free of the disease himself, Damien was something of a sensation. He was praised for his Catholic sense of self-sacrifice and even dubbed a “martyr,” particularly towards the end of his life when it became clear that he had contracted a severe and ultimately fatal form of Hansen’s disease.3

“The priest of Kalawao, with some children of the settlement.” In Daws, Holy man: Father Damien of Molokai, 1973.

So while the Reverend Doctor Hyde only met Damien once during a brief visit to Kalawao in 1885, he had already heard far too much about the priest’s saintliness for his taste. Philanthropic efforts to segregate and support those afflicted with Hansen’s disease in Hawaii were largely funded by wealthy Protestant businessmen and politicians from the United States with a view to future American annexation of the islands. Hyde, an able administrator of these charitable funds, felt that Damien was taking advantage of Protestant charity. “Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth,” Hyde complained. “But never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”4

Halfway across the world in Sydney, Robert Louis Stevenson read Hyde’s criticism of Damien with mounting rage. Fresh from the success of his best-selling novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson wasted no time in raising his pen against the Reverend Doctor: “With you,” he wrote with a certain viciousness, “I rejoice to feel the button off the foil and to plunge home.”5 In February of 1890, he printed his own “Open Letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu,” a thirty-page rebuttal ripping apart Hyde’s short complaint.

Unlike Hyde, Stevenson had never met Damien personally. But he was a fellow invalid, terminally ill with tuberculosis, and felt a close affinity for the priest and his country despite their religious differences. Stevenson had travelled to Hawaii for his health in the summer of 1889 and visited the island of Molokai just after Damien’s death. Interviewing both Damien’s compatriots and Protestant critics, he found they “build up the image of a man, with all his weaknesses, essentially heroic, and alive with rugged honesty, generosity, and mirth.”6 Was he coarse? Dirty? Headstrong? Even bigoted? Stevenson admitted he probably was, but asserted that these faults didn’t diminish his bravery or achievements. To Stevenson, Damien’s failings simply made him a human, rather than superhuman, hero.

The response was immediate. Hawaiian newspapers were flooded with responses to Stevenson’s letter ranging from gleeful to indignant. Headlines bloomed across the United States, from San Francisco to Omaha to New York. “Damien Defended!” declared the Omaha Daily Bee. “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” taunted The New York Times.7 Hyde didn’t stand much of a chance in this battle of the printed word. Stevenson’s impassioned defense of Damien triggered an outpouring of charity from around the world dedicated to the deceased Damien’s cause. Hyde never backed down from his position, but he retreated from public view. “I leave it to any candid mind to judge which side lies the calumny and slander,” the beleaguered Hyde concluded. “There let it lie.”8

Damien’s greatest public critic and most famous defender have had their say, but the man himself remains a mystery Next time, we’ll hear more from those who knew the best and worst of Damien personally—his religious superiors.

Read part two and part three.


1. As quoted in Robert Louis Stevenson, Father Damien: an open letter to the Reverend Doctor Hyde of Honolulu from Robert Louis Stevenson (London: Chatto and Windus, 1890), 6-7.

2. Flanders House. http://www.flandershouse.org/fatherdamien

3. For examples see, “Father Damien’s Mission,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, November 5, 1885; “The Late Father Damien,” The Honolulu Daily Bulletin, April 29, 1889; “The Leper Martyr,” New-York Tribune, May 12, 1889.

4. Gavan Daws, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 12-13. Stevenson, Father Damien, 7.

5. Stevenson, Father Damien, 8.

6. Stevenson, Father Damien, 20.

7. For examples see “Letter to the Editor: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Letter,” The Hawaiian Gazette, May 27, 1890; “Letter to the Editor: Stevenson’s Letter,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, May 21, 1890; Mary Lambert, “Stevenson and Father Damien,” San Francisco Morning Call., June 8, 1990; “Damien Defended!,” Omaha Daily Bee, May 24, 1890; “A Reverend Gossip Rebuked,” The New York Times, January 21, 1890.

8. As quoted in Daws, Holy Man, 247.