CARVILLE, La. -- When Mary Ruth Daigle first arrived in Carville,
La., in 1939, she was a patient.
Today, she is a guide at the Trautman Museum, a newly expanded
facility at the Gillis W. Long Hansen's Disease Center, which for
years was a treatment center for the disease formerly called
Visiting the museum provides a fascinating overview of the
history of the feared disease, the eventual triumph of treatment
and the lives of those the disease has touched dramatically.
There is no more authentic way to learn about Hansen's Disease
than to listen to a tour guide who has lived through it first
"I didn't want to come," Daigle recalled of her experience
following her diagnosis in 1939. "But they said 'You have to be
isolated, or we will put a yellow ribbon around your house.' "
Then she found out that her sister had been admitted in 1935 --
shame surrounding the disease had prevented Daigle's mother from
telling her until it was time for her to go, too.
"We came by train, and my sister came and picked me up. So it
wasn't as difficult because at least I had someone that I
Hansen's Disease, which is still called leprosy in many parts of
the world, is a chronic infectious disease caused by mycobacterium
leprae, but the fear of the disease always has been greater than
the actual threat of contagion.
A worldwide leprosy scare in the 1890s forced thousands of
sufferers into new treatment centers, as segregation and isolation
became common policy.
Originally called the Louisiana Leper Home -- and usually known
simply as "Carville" -- the facility, where Daigle still lives,
opened in the 1890s on the site of Indian Camp, a 300-acre sugar
plantation on a bend of the Mississippi River between New Orleans
and Baton Rouge, La.
Set among lush lawns and pecan trees, it was renamed the
National Leprosarium when the federal government purchased it in
Soon, the facility was recognized worldwide as a leading
treatment center, and it was here that the use of sulfone drugs
first proved effective in 1941.
But sulfone wasn't around when Daigle arrived, and she knows all
too well about the years of failed treatment that patients endured.
She still rubs her hip when she talks about the painful shots of
chaulmoogra oil that she received initially. "I still feel it," she
"We had to take it in a shot on our hip. And then we had to take
the capsules by mouth at mealtime, which made you sick to your
The same year that she arrived, she met the man she would marry,
who had arrived as a patient earlier that year. "He was from Lake
Charles, La.," she said.
"We got married Oct. 6, 1946." Because patients at Carville were
allowed to leave for short periods of time, they were able to have
the ceremony in New Orleans and take a honeymoon in St. Louis.
"At that time, they let the patients go out just 10 days, twice
Carville's population reached its peak in the 1950s, when 400
patients called the institution home.
In the 1990s, the caseload dipped to fewer than 150, and a
decision was made in 1998 to move the facility from its
100-building campus in Carville to Summit Hospital in Baton
Some patients protested. After spending most of their lives at
the facility, many were not eager to make a foray into a world that
had shunned them for so long.
Ultimately, patients were offered a $33,000-a-year stipend if
they left Carville, or could choose to stay in a single building on
the grounds, with a daily shuttle bus offering visits to Summit
"My husband and I knew there would be change," recalled Daigle,
"and we talked about it almost every day.
And he said, 'Sweetie, we have to stay here. We cannot go.' We
were here already 57 years. He said, 'We're going to stay here
because where are we going to make friends, where are we going to
get a job?'
So we stayed here. He died just two-and-a half years ago."
Most of the Carville campus is now used by a National Guard
youth program, but a handful of patients have chosen to remain.
Facility gets more space
CARVILLE, La. -- The Trautman Museum, which opened in 1996 and
was named in honor of Dr. John R. Trautman, an assistant surgeon
general who served at Carville for 28 years, has expanded.
In June, it moved to a larger space in a Classical revival
building behind the original antebellum plantation home where it
had been housed.
The museum's expansion was a "dream come true," according to
Sister Margaret Brou, a Carville volunteer and member of the
Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul, a group that has
provided care at Carville since 1896.
The museum consists of several rooms, filled with photos and
exhibits about patient life, medical breakthroughs and
There is also a re-created patient room from the 1940s, and the
museum's gift shop sells a variety of items, including books,
souvenirs, and artwork by the patients.
Since the museum expanded earlier this year, "we've had roughly
300 visitors," said Daigle. "I think that's good because we haven't
even been advertised."