Leprosy and the elusive M. leprae: colonial and Imperial medical exchanges in the nineteenth century

Hist Cienc Saude Manguinhos. 2003;10(Suppl 1):13-40. doi: 10.1590/s0104-59702003000400002.


In the 1800s, humoral understandings of leprosy successively give way to disease models based on morbid anatomy, physiopathology, and bacteriology. Linkages between these disease models were reinforced by the ubiquitous seed/soil metaphor deployed both before and after the identification of M.leprae. While this metaphor provided a continuous link between medical descriptions, Henry Vandyke Carter's On leprosy (1874) marks a convergence of different models of disease. Simultaneously, this metaphor can be traced in popular medical debates in the late nineteenth century, accompanying fears of a resurgence of leprosy in Europe. Later the mapping of the genome ushers in a new model of disease but, ironically, while leprosy research draws its logic from a view of the world in which a seed and soil metaphor expresses many different aspects of the activity of the disease, the bacillus itself continues to be unreceptive to cultivation.

Publication types

  • Biography
  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Bacteriology / history*
  • Colonialism / history*
  • Europe
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Leprosy / history*

Personal name as subject

  • Henry Vandyke Carter