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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

MUSEUM: Mumbai's Place in Leprosy Control

Acworth Leprosy Museum provides a legacy for future generations.

(Top) External view of the museum; (above) the refurbished interior

A bust of Harry Arbuthnot Acworth greets visitors to the leprosy museum and hospital that bear his name. Acworth founded "The Homeless Leper Asylum" for vagrants and beggars in Bombay in 1890 when he was municipal commissioner. In recognition of his efforts, it was renamed the "Acworth Leper Asylum" in 1904, later undergoing further name changes before becoming the "Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy" in 1992.

In Acworth's time, the solution to the problem posed by leprosy was to segregate people with the disease from the general population. However, Acworth was not unsympathetic to their plight and declared he would do all he could to make their time comfortable.

"The inmates of the asylum are, without having committed any crime, prisoners for life, and (I) feel it to be my clear and sacred duty to provide, as far as (I) can, for all their legitimate requirements... "

The hospital was tolerant of relations between the sexes, and of the caste and religious affiliations of the inmates. A Hindu Temple, a Mosque and a Roman Catholic Church were all erected on the grounds.


In 1970, hospital staff established the Acworth Leprosy Hospital Society for Research, Rehabilitation, and Education in Leprosy (ALH RRE), with the aim of facilitating the rehabilitation of people affected by leprosy, encouraging research studies and carrying out health education in leprosy. The Acworth Leprosy Museum is an extension of these activities in collaboration with Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy.

Founded in 2003, the museum is housed in a former ward of the hospital and is divided into various modules: The Disease, History of Treatment, Official Reports, Legal and Social Perspectives, Institutions, Philanthropic Efforts and Approaches, Literature and Leprosy, Archival Records and Health Education.

In addition to documenting the story of the hospital, the museum's broader aim is to serve as a leprosy archival center for all of India, by making available important historical documents, reports, photographs and other records that together constitute both a medical and social history of leprosy. This work is taking on more significance as incidence of the disease declines and leprosy organizations diversify into other areas.

Visitors to the museum will doubtless see the parallel between historical social responses to leprosy and the current attitude toward other stigmatizing diseases. Among the documents held in Acworth's growing archives are those that show that the idea of a "good pious death" by suicide for those with then-incurable leprosy was espoused by ancient Indian scriptures.

"We want people to take away with them the lesson that what happened in leprosy should not happen in any other disease," said Mrs. Prathibha Kathe, the ALH RRE Society's project coordinator.

Included in the exhibits is a wooden partition once used to keep patients and doctors apart during consultations in the days when it was not known how the disease was transmitted. Also on display are posters designed by art students for a health poster competition. One reads, "Leprosy attacks the body, prejudice attacks the mind, one caused by virus, one caused by ignorance."

In recent months the museum has undergone extensive refurbishment and has been digitizing its archive of documents and books, which are available in the museum's library cum reference center. It also has an online presence. For students of medical history, and anyone with a social conscience, a visit to Acworth Museum will be richly rewarded.