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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

TRIBUTE: Remembering Professor Lechat

Dr. Yo Yuasa recalls friend and fellow leprosy worker Professor Michel F. Lechat.

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Professor Lechat in Tokyo, 1975

It is sad to note the recent passing of one of the most active and greatest contributors to global leprosy work at the age of 86. When I visited Professor Michel Lechat for the last time in September 2013 in Belgium, accompanied by Dr. S.K. Noordeen, he was immobile and unable to talk, although Mrs. Lechat assured us he was happy to see us.

My first contact with Professor Lechat was in November 1958 at the 7th International Congress on Leprology in Tokyo. He had traveled from the Belgian Congo, where Dr F. Hemerijckx was his mentor and where he worked at the Iyonda Leprosarium. The novelist Graham Greene would write “A Burnt-Out Case” after visiting him there.

Subsequently he gained his doctorate in public health from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and later became professor of epidemiology at Catholic University of Louvain’s School of Medicine, outside Brussels.

He was a regular member of the WHO’s Expert Committee on Leprosy, which he chaired. He also chaired the 1981 meeting of the Chemotherapy Study Group, when the decision was taken to recommend multidrug therapy (MDT) to treat leprosy. More than 30 years later, MDT remains the main tool of leprosy control.

Following the establishment of the Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation (SMHF) in 1974, he attended the 2nd Seminar on Leprosy Control Cooperation in Asia organized by SMHF in 1975. From that point on, Professor Lechat, together with Dr. Stanley Browne (“Mr. Leprosy”), became an enthusiastic supporter of the foundation.

I became the medical director of SMHF in 1975 and Professor Lechat was to assist me in so many ways — not least at the meetings of the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Association’s Medical Commission, which in those days were conducted in French and not English.

Michel and I became very close friends as well as effective co-workers, traveling together in many leprosy-endemic countries. He enjoyed coming to Tokyo, eating nigiri-zushi at Tsukiji fish market and browsing through the second-hand bookshops in the city’s Jimbocho district. On one visit he was accompanied by his wife Edith. In Kyoto, they stayed in a Japanese ryokan and toured the city on bicycles.

In spite of his considerable size and loud voice, Michel was a very sensitive, even insecure person. Whenever I was at a conference with him, he would invariably ask me, “How was my presentation?” Needless to say, it was always of the highest order.

Although it is sad to realize that this great leprosy worker is no longer with us, we must be very thankful to Heaven that he was among us when we set out to eliminate leprosy as a public health problem.

Dr. S.K. Noordeen adds: Professor Lechat, with whom I had interacted for over 30 years, played a key role as advisor to the WHO in the development and evolution of WHO policies and strategies in leprosy. His passion for leprosy work, both at the academic and field levels, was unparalleled.