Carville's Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice with Pam Fessler
Join us at 6:00 p.m. CST for an evening with author Pam Fessler as she explores the history and legacy of the only leprosy colony in the continental United States, located in Carville, Louisiana, and the lives of its patients and staff. This program is sponsored by the Friends of the Cabildo as part of the Second Thursday Lecture Series. It is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The program will take place on Zoom. Please register here: https://forms.gle/BnXWR5KVJLGUVMc59
About the Book
The Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans curls around an old sugar plantation that long housed one of America’s most painful secrets. Locals knew it as Carville, the site of the only leprosy colony in the continental United States, where generations of afflicted Americans were isolated—often against their will and until their deaths.
Following the trail of an unexpected family connection, acclaimed journalist Pam Fessler has unearthed the lost world of the patients, nurses, doctors, and researchers at Carville, who struggled for over a century to eradicate Hansen’s disease, the modern name for leprosy. Amid widespread public anxiety about foreign contamination and contagion, patients were deprived of basic rights—denied the right to vote, restricted from leaving Carville, and often forbidden from contact with their own parents or children. Neighbors fretted over their presence and newspapers warned of their dangerous condition, which was seen as a biblical “curse” rather than a medical diagnosis.
Though shunned by their fellow Americans, patients surprisingly made Carville more a refuge than a prison. Many carved out meaningful lives, building a vibrant community and finding solace, brotherhood, and even love behind the barbed-wire fence that surrounded them. Among the memorable figures we meet in Fessler’s masterful narrative are John Early, a pioneering crusader for patients’ rights, and the unlucky Landry siblings—all five of whom eventually called Carville home—as well as a butcher from New York, a 19-year-old debutante from New Orleans, and a pharmacist from Texas who became the voice of Carville around the world. Though Jim Crow reigned in the South and racial animus prevailed elsewhere, Carville took in people of all faiths, colors, and backgrounds. Aided by their heroic caretakers, patients rallied to find a cure for Hansen’s disease and to fight the insidious stigma that surrounded it.
Weaving together a wealth of archival material with original interviews as well as firsthand accounts from her own family, Fessler has created an enthralling account of a lost American history. In our new age of infectious disease, Carville’s Cure demonstrates the necessity of combating misinformation and stigma if we hope to control the spread of illness without demonizing victims and needlessly destroying lives.
About the Author
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues. In her reporting at NPR, Fessler has covered a wide range of topics including stories on homelessness, hunger, affordable housing, and income inequality. Her poverty reporting was recognized with a 2011 First Place National Headliner Award.
Fessler also covers elections and voting, including efforts to make voting more accessible, accurate, and secure. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she became NPR's first Homeland Security correspondent. She also reported on the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, The 9/11 Commission Report, Social Security, and the Census. Fessler was one of NPR's White House reporters during the Clinton and Bush administrations.
Before becoming a correspondent, Fessler was the acting senior editor on the Washington Desk and NPR's chief election editor. She coordinated all network coverage of the presidential, congressional, and state elections in 1996 and 1998. In her more than 25 years at NPR, Fessler has also been deputy Washington Desk editor and Midwest National Desk editor. Earlier in her career, she was a senior writer at Congressional Quarterly magazine.
Carville’s Cure: Leprosy, Stigma, and the Fight for Justice is Fessler’s first book. Fessler has a master's of public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a bachelor's degree from Douglass College in New Jersey. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland.