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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

BOOK: Safeguarding the Past

A pictorial history marks the 90th anniversary of Borneo’s last leprosarium.


The Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial Hospital began life in 1925 as an isolated settlement for people with leprosy on the island of Borneo. Now transformed from a leprosarium into a district hospital, the RCBM Hospital in Sarawak, Malaysia marked its 90th anniversary in October with a celebration and the publication of a pictorial history.

In the Sanctuary of the Outcasts: Life within the Rajah Charles Brooke Memorial Leprosarium describes how patients lived in wooden longhouses, “surrounded by miles and miles of deep forest,” and had little contact with the outside world. Able-bodied patients took on the role of “patient workers,” carrying out tasks such as fetching water, cooking, cleaning and tending to the sick. One such patient, “John,” continued to live and work at the leprosarium after completing his treatment. He did so both out of a sense of calling and a realization that it would be difficult for him to be accepted by friends, family and the community because of the stigma of the disease.

A “patient worker” fits a prosthesis.

The settlement was transformed under its fifth superintendant, who oversaw the building of new administrative blocks, a dispensary, wards, dormitories, staff quarters and a multipurpose hall during the 1950s. Patients were offered vocational training and employment at the hospital. Those released from treatment were encouraged to return to their families, although, as the example of “John” showed, this was not always easy. A “Village of Hope” was initiated in 1980 to promote rehabilitation.

“Not many people actually look at this hospital from the perspective of a leprosy patient, from the perspective of a family member, and from the perspective of an ordinary human being,” writes the hospital’s director, Dr. Goh Xi Yiong. This book does that, and is part of a movement to preserve the hospital’s history in the form of an “open museum” — a national heritage site where visitors can encounter the past through buildings, artifacts, and the arts and crafts made by those for whom RCBM was their sanctuary and home.*


* The chief minister of Sarawak has given approval for the hospital’s museum to be gazetted as the state’s cultural heritage.