January 15, 2012

The Lepers of Mount Athos (1891)

Dr. Zambaco Pasha, a well-known and distinguished writer on leprosy, was a native of Constantinople and strongly believed that leprosy was not a contagious disease. In 1891 he published the book Voyages chez les Lépreux (Paris, 1891) in which he devotes a chapter to the lepers of Mount Athos (read the original in French here, pp. 219-238), whom he uniquely describes. Below is a very paraphrased section of this account.

Near Iveron Monastery on Mount Athos there was a hospice for lepers where the monks without reservation cared for the lepers through the 19th century. Lepers had previously sought shelter in the forests of Mount Athos, and they fed only on herbs and roots.

The leper colony on Mount Athos was about ten minutes from Iveron Monastery. Though European leper hospices were in much better condition, this one on Mount Athos was in very good condition where patients found shelter and food. It provided a place so the lepers would not be alone to die of hunger without any medical care.

The patron saints of the leprosarium were the Holy Unmercenary Saints and the cost for its functioning was 6,000 francs a year. It was located on a picturesque hillside surrounded by ancient trees to shelter the patients from the extreme heat of the sun. In the spring wild flowers gave the area a beautiful fragrance along with many bright colors.

The property consisted of a ground floor with seven rooms. Each room had a window and a fireplace for the winter. A greenhouse was also built so the patients could walk through when it rained outside. A small church was built out of the same material as the building. The garden was divided into two parts - one for the cultivation of vegetables and one for flowers to please the patients.

There were 8 to 20 leper patients living at this colony at a time. Their diet mainly consisted of vegetables. Monks and hermits visited them constantly. They often spent many days among them, sharing their meals, housing, etc. They even wore the clothing of the lepers and slept on their sheets, full of dried pus from wounds and ulcers. Some monks did this for many years without any reservation. Despite this, none of them ever contracted leprosy.

Priests associated with the colony lived among the lepers for fifteen or thirty years and never became leprous. They ate together with them and lived a common life with them, but they remained unharmed. Dr. Phanouriadi is mentioned at the end of the chapter and describes how a young man slept in the same room, used the same utensils and drank from the same cup of Patient #8 for nine years and remained unharmed. A second young man was linked to another patient for thirteen years but remained in a healthy condition. Dr. Phanouriadi observed this colony for five years and concluded that none of those attending to the lepers ever came down with leprosy themselves.

Dr. Pasha mentions how a few years prior a leper gave dinner to a priest and a deacon. The patient had leprous sores on his hand, but still did household chores like serving at the table. While serving the priest and deacon a few drops of pus dropped into their soup. Though the priest rebuked the careless leper, he still did not refuse to eat the soup with spices.

Patients to the colony at Iveron came from Ierissos, the Peloponnese, Mytilene, Volos, Thassos, Kalymnos, etc. Dr. Phanouriadi, who was a physician on Mount Athos, said that all were admitted there. Most often those who were admitted caught leprosy from an infected parent or grandparent, with the first symptoms appearing between the ages of 8 and 20. Dr. Phanouriadi never encountered a younger child with leprosy. Leprosy phymatode was the most common form.

With Leprosy trophonévrosique one can live and grow old. On Athos there was an eighty-year-old leper who caught the disease at the age of thirty. Some had the disease for 35 or even 55 years.

Most patients belonged to families of farmers and sailors who suffered all kinds of deprivations in their childhood. They were badly dressed, had no heat in the winter, were vulnerable to the vicissitudes of weather and suffered the most wretched poverty.

Often the lepers came from places where they were considered contagious, and thus were exiled. If they ever violated this mandate to return among the healthy they were often killed. There were some places where lepers were allowed to eat and live among the healthy without any precautions. No one wanted to marry a leper however, and if a spouse contracted the disease while married the healthy spouse was allowed to obtain a divorce. More often though in these places lepers continued to live normal lives and had children and there was no divorce sought.

All the lepers of Mount Athos knew that poor nutrition, especially pork, oil, salted fish, and eels were very harmful to their health. They feared, too, cold and moisture, which propelled their deterioration.