On 19 June 1890, TOI published a letter from a ‘Lady A’ expressing horror and pity at the “lepers” of Bombay. “They perambulate our streets, [r]ubbing against many an unconscious passer-by,” she wrote, adding, “are they to be allowed to wander about homeless, penniless and often friendless?”

The letter helped kickstart a donation drive, led by the then municipal commissioner Harry Acworth, to raise money for an asylum in what was then the outskirts of the city. The institution in Wadala would go on to become the largest of its kind in the country, housing 450 patients at its peak, and set a precedent for the way in which colonial India dealt with urban leprosy. It also epitomised, according to Dr Shubhada Pandya, author of a PhD thesis on leprosy in colonial Bombay, what the city could do for its disadvantaged.

Today, with less than a hundred patients, Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy is increasingly being put to other uses. It houses the country’s only leprosy museum which showcases the story of the hospital and, through that, offers a window into an ancient stigma, colonial tussles, and a long battle against a disease that, as the recent detection of new cases reminds us, is not quite over.

Acworth’s asylum was established in November 1890 with funds raised from a public subscription, aided by a meeting of prominent citizens in Dinshaw Petit’s residence on Malabar Hill and publication of donor names in TOI.

The donations raised Rs 1.3 lakh, a princely sum then, with sizable contributions from industrialists, rajahs, traders, and Europeans.

The generosity was driven by charitable motives as well as a measure of alarm. Ostracised, penniless and often visibly deformed patients were thought to be flocking to Bombay. “[T]hey crowded to the temples on the sea-shore, lining the streets in scores and hundreds,” wrote Acworth in 1899. “They washed and drank from the public taps. They scattered their rags about shops and markets.” The Indian press called for lepers to be removed from public places, even dispatched to the Andamans.

These fears reflect the social and medical context of the times. The ancient disease, incurable until the mid-to-late 20th century, was a ground for divorce in most personal laws. Hindu civil law also excluded leprosy patients from inheritance (Mohammed Ali Jinnah fought and won a case in the Bombay high court for a client threatened with disinheritance). Tradition also condoned assisted suicides, a practice prevalent in several parts of India until well into the 20th century. The practice was upheld by the courts until the Indian Penal Code of 1862 criminalised suicide.

Acworth’s move to forcibly segregate patients was not uncontroversial. The commissioner hit upon the idea of using a municipal rule that permitted coercive action to deal with dangerous infectious diseases. Medical opinion at the time was divided on the cause of leprosy and whether it was contagious. Acworth, though, decided the city couldn’t wait for the question to be settled. Leprosy was declared a danger and patients rounded up from the streets and carted off to the new asylum.

The success of the Acworth home led the way for the Lepers

Act of 1898, which allowed authorities across the country to segregate patients as well as bar them from public wells and certain trades. Such discriminatory rules lingered long after cures were found and myths unmasked: The Lepers Act was only repealed in 2016 and an amendment bill to strike down leprosy as a ground for divorce was introduced only last year.

Still, for years, Acworth’s hospital provided a refuge to destitute sufferers, decent medical treatment and, unlike some other such homes, enforced no rigid sexual segregation. All religions were allowed to be practised—a mosque, a temple and a church were built in the compound. The asylum became one among a slew of shelters and clinics set up in the region by service-minded Indians such as Baba Amte, many inspired by Gandhi and Vinobha Bhave who both took a keen interest in the issue.

As years passed, Acworth’s asylum became more of a hospital than a home, reflecting the progress of medicine and society. As the museum shows, that journey included fascinating experiments undertaken by doctors in colonial Bombay— including Acworth and JJ hospitals—with numerous therapies to treat leprosy, even various oils. Chaulmoogra oil was a popular treatment through the early 20th century, and was even integrated into soaps such as Chandrika.