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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

HISTORY: Echoes from the Past

Jerusalem's Hansen Hospital is a museum in the making

The early days of the asylum (Hospital photos courtesy of Ruth Wexler)

In what today is one of Jerusalem's most affluent neighborhoods stands an impressive but nearly vacant building: the Hansen Hospital.

Established in 1887 by the city's Protestant community as the Jesus Hilfe Asyl (Jesus Help Asylum), it was designed by Conrad Shick, a German missionary and self-taught architect. The spacious two-story building was set in a large, walled compound containing four water cisterns, a vegetable garden, fruit trees and livestock, and was designed to be self-sufficient. Each floor had access to its own toilet via a bridge.

Built to accommodate 60 leprosy patients, the asylum was soon known as "The Leper House." It was thought of as a closed institution, but in fact patients were free to leave, and family members could come and visit.

The Herrenhut Brotherhood of the Moravian Church ran the facility between 1887 and 1950. Staff came from Europe to care for the patients, who were mostly Muslims, although there were some Christians and a few Jews. Since an effective cure did not exist, care was based on the accepted principles of hygiene, fresh air, proper nourishment, physical activity and spiritual support.

In 1948, following the establishment of the State of Israel and the division of Jerusalem, the asylum found itself on the Israeli side of the city. Some of the patients and staff left, moving to an asylum in the village of Silwan, east of the city.

In 1950, the Moravian Church sold the entire compound to the Jewish National Fund, following which the Israeli Ministry of Health took over the running of the asylum and renamed it the Hansen Government Hospital.

With the development of multidrug therapy, patients were gradually rehabilitated and discharged. The last in-patients left the hospital in 2000.

While much of the compound has fallen into disuse, parts are still used on an outpatient basis by two units of the health ministry: the Israel Hansen's Disease Center, and the Infant Mental Health Unit.

The hospital was the subject of a two-year photo project by Yuval Yairi, whose work was exhibited in New York and Tel Aviv in 2005. It was also used as the backdrop for Israeli Nobel laureate S. Y. Agnon's novel, Shira.

Work is now under way to turn part of hospital into a museum focusing on its human and cultural story.


Ruth Wexler is nursing director at the Israel Hansen's Disease Center. She has been working at the Hansen Hospital in Jerusalem since 1988.