Tuesday 16 November, 2021
Some months ago, I was asked to find a speaker for a charity dinner. I consigned the question to the windmills of my mind, in the firm belief that the sails would turn, wheels and cogs would interlock and a speaker would be found.
Now I’m a sucker for ‘freebies’ and last week I picked up a free Rotary magazine from Sainsbury’s.
One of the articles was about leprosy. The very word conjures up fear. It is a wasting disease where the peripheral nerves die, causing pain and numbness, but also leaving the body vulnerable to damage. For millennia it was recognised as infectious and a sufferer was immediately banished from the community.
I was reminded of a famous letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson concerning leprosy. Stevenson had gone to the South Seas in the hope of recovering from tuberculosis, then an infectious and incurable disease. In Britain at the time, families were often ostracised if one of their members had the illness. He empathised with the social rejection of the lepers and decided to visit the island of Molokai where a famous priest, Father Damien, had just died.
A Belgian missionary, Damien had volunteered in 1878 to go to live in the leper colony on Molokai, a lawless place, ruled by violent gangs. Sixteen years later at the age of forty-nine he contracted leprosy and died, but not before establishing a civilised community, providing care, justice and peace. His total commitment to the lepers of Molokai gained him world-wide acclaim.
Stevenson was greatly moved by the care shown by the doctor and nuns in the hospital but repelled by the smell and sight of the lepers with their disfigured faces and bodies. Back in Hawaii a public figure, who had never visited the island of Molokai, wrote a letter in answer to a colleague’s enquiry about Fr. Damien. In his response he referred to the colony’s insanitary conditions and maligned the name of Father Damien. The letter was published in an Australian paper.
On reading the letter, Stevenson was outraged. In a lengthy open letter to the world’s press, he publicly humiliated the writer in a stinging rebuke. Stevenson’s invective was so severe, that he thought he might be sued. He never was. In the letter Stevenson suggested that Damien might someday be made a Saint. The Vatican officially declared Damien a saint in 2009.
The treatment of leprosy advanced, but up until 1916 the only effective medication was injectable chaulmoogra oil, which had very unpleasant side effects. In 1916 a black American chemist, Alice Augusta Ball was working at Hawaii University. She was the first woman and first black American to teach chemistry and obtain a master’s degree at the University. At the age of 23, Alice discovered a method of radically improving the medication. Her discovery, led to the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s, when a full cure was found. Sadly, Alice died in 1917. Four years after her death, her notes were published and her superior, the Dean of the University, was exposed as trying to claim the discovery for himself. He had even given the new medication his name.
Today leprosy has been almost completely eliminated globally. Any pockets are quickly identified and treated.
From an article in a Rotary magazine, my windmills had interlocked. I had journeyed from Glasgow to Molokai and Hawaii, encountering en-route, saints and sinners, writers and reprobates, chemists and cures.
At the end of the article there was, written in small type:
‘Anyone requiring an after-dinner speaker should contact ‘firstname.lastname@example.org.’
In the words of the song,
“As the images unwind, like the circles that you find in the windmills of your mind.”
My windmills had finally resolved the initial question and provided me with a potential speaker.