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09 May 2022

Leprosy coins: an (almost) unknown numismatic phenomenon

Odd & Curious Money | Coleccionistas de Monedas

Leprosy is perhaps the most feared disease in history, reported in millenary texts and universally popularized by its numerous mentions in the Bible. However, although this bacillus is not transmitted by contact but through the airways when breathing, coughing, or talking, different countries minted coins for prophylactic purposes since the early twentieth century for the exclusive use of leprosaria located in their territory.

This disease led to millennia of segregation andisolation measuresfor those who had the misfortune to suffer from it. In this article, we will provide all the information on this phenomenon and the best-known coins that were minted for this purpose.

Leprosy, leprosaria, and lazarettos

Leprosy is caused by Mycobacterium leprae, a bacillus discovered in 1874 by the Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen, from whom the other name of the disease derives: Hanseniasis. It affects the skin, nerves, respiratory tract, and eyes. Leprosy is believed to have originated in India during the 3rd millennium B.C., spreading as urbanism and trade routes expanded. Documentarily, its most notable mention appears in Leviticus, sacred literature for the West. Thus, its prescriptions on ailment ended up being followed literally.

Leprosaria arose during the Middle Ages as places of seclusion. They were also known as lazarettos due to the Order of Saint Lazarus and his patron saint: protector of hospitals and lepers. Europeans brought leprocomiums to America, while in Asia they had considerable antiquity. Theseproto-hospitalswere erected in remote areas and had facilities to cover quarantine periods for the sick.

Their use continued until a cure for the disease was developed. In fact, at the First International Conference on Leprosy (Berlin, 1897), Dr. Hansen recommended the institutionalized isolation of sufferers. Other specialists proposed the manufacture of currency for restricted use, to which patients would have access through contributions or labor.

These resolutions were not mandatory but were left to the discretion of each nation. The measures were maintained until1981when the World Health Organization determined a treatment to cure the patient. From that moment on, the fight against the disease reached a turning point, and both the disease and leprosaria ceased to be a public health problem and became history, as evidenced by coins.

Colombia, a pioneer in coins for leper houses

The oldest known official coins belong to the Colombian leprosarium of Agua de Dios, Caño de Loro and Contratación. Bogota minted four series: 1901, 1907, 1921 (copper) and 1928 (nickel). The denominations ranged from centavo to 10 pesos. The design included a cross with the word "lazaretto", the value, year, the legend "República de Colombia" (Republic of Colombia) and, in some cases, the national coat of arms and place of manufacture.

Venezuelan Coins

Venezuelan coins appeared in 1913 in the name of theMaracaibo lazaretto, located on the island of Providencia, in the western part of the country, while others were issued in 1916. Made of brass, they included the name of the leprosarium and the year on the obverse side, while the reverse side showed the value, from 5 centavos to 20 bolivars.

In 1936 a new series was minted for the Cabo Blanco leprosarium in the country's center. The issues would conclude in 1939 when Maracaibo received its last pieces. The variations between coins would be typographic in their typeface (denticles vs. dots), edge (smooth vs. striated), and presentation of the denominations (fractions vs. decimals).

The Philippines and the Culion Island Lazaretto

TheUnited Statesoccupied the Philippines between 1898 and 1946, creating the leprocomium on Culion Island, and minting between 1913 and 1930 coins ranging in value from ½ centavo to peso. This country struck the first series in aluminum (1913, 1920) and cupronickel (1922); they showed on the obverse a caduceus, the legend "Bureau of Health", later "Philippine Health Service", and the year; the reverse displayed the value accompanied by the inscriptions "Culion Leper Colony" and "Philippine Islands".

The Philippines made the 1925 and 1927 series in cupronickel. The obverse side of the design showed the Philippine Health Service coat of arms, the year, the mention of the organization (above), and the denomination (below). The reverse side displayed the bust of Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini, or Jose Rizal, all heroes of the Philippine Revolution, surrounded by the same legends as their predecessors.

The last series (1930), in cupronickel, dedicated its obverse to the value, the year, the legends of the health service and "Leper Coin [lettered value]"; the reverse showed a hero of the Independence accompanied by the inscriptions of the islands and "Leper Colonies and Stations" (colonies and stations for lepers).

Panama: coins in the canal zone

The U.S. administration that built the Panama Canal also built thePalo Secoleper colony, producing perforated brass and aluminum coins for it in 1919. The values ranged from pennies to dollars and bore the legends "Palo Seco Canal Zone" (obverse) and "redeemable for [value] in merchandise" (reverse).

Leprosy coins in Brazil

Brazil hadfour institutionsthat minted Lazarine coinage; however, pieces from only two of them are known. In the first place, we have the Santa Casa de Misericordia, which was minted in 1920 for Tocunduba (state of Pará) brass pieces that exhibited on their obverse side the denomination, the identification of the asylum, and the region where it was located. The reverse indicated "Hospicio dos Lazaros" (Hospice of the Lazarians).

On the other hand, we have the Colonia Santa Teresa, established in Florianópolis in 1940. This institution minted during that decade coins in brass, with the inscription "N°" and the value on the obverse. The reverse showed the initials of the hospital: "C. S. T.".

China and the last lazarettos

In the1980s, when other countries had already withdrawn their circulating currency, China produced coins for the hospital in Qinhu (Jiangsu province) and other prisons. Made ofplasticand brightly colored, they had denominations ranging from fen (cent) to yuan. Their design indicated, on the obverse side, the legends "Tai Kee Chin Lake" (top) and "for patients' use" (bottom); while the reverse side showed a diamond with the mark "ab-2".

It is difficult to know whether these Chinese leprosy coins are still in use, but it is believed that they were still in use in the 1990s.

Other countries with lazarine coinage

Finally, we will mention other countries that minted this curious type of coin.

Costa Ricadid not mint specific coins. In the 1930s and 1940s, the coins used in general circulation were used but marked in a visible place to be easily recognized. For this purpose, this country chose the ingenious and practical measure of stamping a circular portion.

In theDanish West Indies, the leprosarium on the island of Saint Croix produced pieces made of zinc, of which only one 5-bit specimen survived. Of unifacial type, they showed the value and the identification of the enclosure: "Lepra Asylum St. Croix" (leprosy asylum of Saint Croix).

Japanminted Nagashima Island between 1931 and 1948 brass and aluminum coins with denominations ranging from sen to yen. The obverse side showed the value, the hospital emblem, the legends "internal use" and "Nagashima Aisei-en" in Japanese characters, and decorative elements. The reverse side was blank, except for a few pieces on which the hospital insignia was stamped. Some coins were oval and others round. In some cases, these leprosy coins were perforated.

Nigeriamade brass pennies for the leprosarium in Garkida (Adamawa State). Unifacial, they showed the legends "VIRGWI" and "1D", whose meaning we do not know. They were perforated at the top for hanging. It is believed that they were manufactured between 1929 and the 1940s when the hospital began to apply outpatient treatments.

Finally,Thailandresealed general circulation coins for the Chiang Mai asylum between the 1930s and 1940s. The only known specimen shows the countermarks of a square (obverse) and a cross (reverse), centered around the perforation and the main motif of the piece (1 bronze satang).

This article was published byHussein LarrealatColeccionistas de Monedas numismatic magazine(in spanish) on 03/31/2022.
Please, feel free to take whatever you want from this article. Simply link to the original post.

This article was originally written in Spanish. We would be very grateful if you could spare some time to improve its translation into your language. In that case please send it to admin@coleccionistasdemonedas.com.

Sources, references and bibliography:

Larreal Soto, Hussein (2016). Providencia: Cultural Landscape and Numismatic Heritage. Unpublished research work. Central Bank of Venezuela, Maracaibo.

Pandya, Shubhada (2003): The First International Leprosy Conference, Berlin, 1897: the politics of segregation. História, Ciências, Saúde, 10 (1), 161-177.Reference.

Rojas Apone, Manuel (2019). The numismatics of lazarettos in Venezuela. Historical review and catalog. Caracas: Autor.

Ruiz Calleja, Adolfo (2016). Coins for lazarettos at the beginning of the 20th century. Numismatic Blog. Accessed March 27, 2022.Reference.

Saskatoon Coin Club (2022). Leper Colony Coins. [Website online].Reference.



Level 6

Excellent blog. Top Notch. I learned a ton from you. Also a Bibliography with photos. This is how it is supposed to be done. Spooky subject but not to be forgotten. I recently saw a show on this. Greece has a LOT to be ashamed of. Great coins. Thanks.🐍

Long Beard

Level 5

Always enjoyable to learn something previously unknown. Even better when it was written with some excellent research and source provided to further explore. Thanks for the blog topic!


Level 6

Really interesting subject! Well researched! I enjoyed reading this very much! ; )

AC coin$

Level 6

Excellent theme and essay. As I read it I travelled to all the countries you've mentioned. Most of this coinage even though is historically reknown tend to disappear within the studies of people. You brought them to light again. I could not avoid but thinking about the ordeals of COVID worldwide and the eventual issuance of a coin design to place this terrible disease un the annals of time. Thanks so much for sharing this type of coinage with us all. Also, thanks for your appreciation of this subject thru your collector sensibility and soul. Nice attractive collected coins and great blog to recall for a prolongued time.

Thanks for your comments.


Level 7

Good article. I was next to a leper when I was getting therapy for putting my foot in a lawn mower cutting it in half. Great guy. I had no fear of catching it. They have come along way!. Father Damian treated them for years and years. I'm surprised you didn't mention him. A great man. He was known as the Apostle of the lepers. Treated them when no one would. .He worked in Hawaii. As the article says it was all over the world.

I'm glad you liked it.

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