When the United States of America took control of the Panama Canal Zone in 1904, there were widespread reports of about a dozen people with Hansen’s disease—more often called leprosy—living in seclusion on the outskirts of Panama City. Hansen’s disease had been heavily stigmatized for centuries, and emerging public understanding of germs, combined with racial prejudice, did little to quell the fear of contagion.
Though the bacterium that caused the disease had been identified by Norwegian physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen in the 1870s, there was no reliable cure before the antibiotic era. Experts also debated the usefulness of strict segregation: often, it simply encouraged people to conceal their condition, and some physicians and administrators thought it was unnecessary as long as people with the disease were careful to prevent transmission. But the United States took a firm view. In their colonial territories of Hawai‘i, Guam, and the Philippines, for example, American authorities sought to isolate people with the condition. As part of its larger project of bringing “civilization” to Panama, the US government’s Isthmian Canal Commission devised a similar plan.
In 1907, Palo Seco Leper Colony officially opened on the Canal Zone’s rocky Pacific shore. With its palm trees and ocean views, Palo Seco reminded many American observers of a “summer resort,” and publicly available photos tended to focus on the beautiful, remote landscape. What they seldom showed were the residents. A closer look at the leprosarium’s records show that Palo Seco’s inhabitants were subject to discipline and a work program that aimed to contain not only infection, but also rebellion.
The residents were often frustrated and longed for escape, or at least the chance to shape their own futures. When they were provided a boat for fishing, for example, a few people set off for nearby Panama City. “I am worn out trying to adjust the situation, and keeping the rebellious ones from more flagrant acts of insubordination,” the Superintendent wrote. In early 1912, when two residents asked to get married, the Canal Commission’s Chairman refused, calling the idea “repugnant.” Another bureaucrat offered instead that Palo Seco’s romantically-inclined inhabitants might direct their energies to gardening, painting, and other maintenance activities.
Though some would later get married, work remained a constant, and Palo Seco’s residents were in fact required to do much of the facility’s upkeep. They were also encouraged to grow vegetables and fruit, both for their own use and for the colony’s kitchen. A 1916 article explained that they were especially fond of pineapple, yams, and mango, while women took particular interest in flowers. Those whose lesions were not too painful could also be paid for work like grass-cutting, painting, masonry, or carpentry. They built some of their own living quarters, and by the 1930s, Palo Seco had a beautifully crafted Catholic church that visitors often admired, with handmade pews and a carved electric chandelier.
Not all residents were paid equally, though. In 1919, the administrators set up a system to compensate people according to their “efficiency” or “physical” ratings, based on their disabilities. Levels A, B, C, and D earned 10, 8, 6, and 4 cents per hour, respectively, money the residents could use to buy small items for themselves. Some even supported families outside the colony with their small earnings. Self-sufficiency was central to US ideology, and the residents were expected to conform to a system of personal productivity that would theoretically inspire them to take better care of their possessions and work harder to earn more. This system was also supposed to yield contentment through busy-ness, nurturing self-respect and ultimately helping make Palo Seco more self-supporting. But the work program was profoundly gendered: in 1921, for example, it employed no women, who instead had to do laundry or other menial tasks in exchange for pay from the men.
The money the residents were issued had limitations as well. Starting in 1919, Palo Seco had its own brass and aluminum coins, which are coveted among collectors today. These reinforced the administrators’ patronizing attitude: unlike a system of ledgers, the simulated currency was supposed to make Palo Seco’s residents feel more independent. The special tokens also quelled the public’s fears about money being handled by people with Hansen’s disease, and they were supposed to prevent the residents from buying rum or using their small savings to escape, either temporarily or permanently. Apparently it was not uncommon for an inhabitant with some cash to head for a secluded area of the beach, pay a local fisherman to take them into Panama City, and get “gloriously drunk” until they ran out of money.
People living with Hansen’s disease struggled against a bureaucracy that often looked upon them with contempt, disciplining them to prevent both infection and rebellion, and they experienced compounding judgements and discrimination based on disability, gender, and race. But they also tried continuously to shape their own futures. Though Palo Seco’s inhabitants may not be visible in the paradisical photos, their labours and loves, and their assertions of selfhood and freedom, are always present.
About the Author
Caroline Lieffers is an Assistant Professor of History at King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, and she is currently working on a book about health and disability on the Panama Canal. You can learn more on her website, carolinelieffers.wordpress.com.
Leprosy in the Pacific, Special Issue of The Journal of Pacific History 52, no. 3 (2017).
Anne Perez Hattori, “Re-membering the Past: Photography, Leprosy and the Chamorros of Guam, 1898-1924,” The Journal of Pacific History 46, no. 3 (2011): 293-318.
Adria L. Imada, An Archive of Skin, An Archive of Kin: Disability and Life-Making during Medical Incarceration (Berkeley: University of California Press, forthcoming 2022).
Kerri A. Inglis, Ma‘i Lepera: Disease and Displacement in Nineteenth-Century Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013).
Warwick Anderson, Colonial Pathologies: American Tropical Medicine, Race, and Hygiene in the Philippines (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), Chapter 6.
 Guy Stewart, “The Disease,” in “Education by Travel,” The Caribbean 7, no. 1 (1924): 35.
 Letter from A.L. Rosenbaum to John L. Phillips, October 24, 1912, page 3, File 72-A-1, Part 2, Box 387, General Correspondence, 1905-1914, Entry 30, RG 185, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park MD.
 Letter from George Goethals to Chief Sanitary Officer, January 11, 1912, File 72-A-1, Part 2, Box 387, General Correspondence, 1905-1914.
 A.M. Napier, “Experiences in the Canal Zone with Special Reference to Malaria and Leprosy,” Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association 13 (1916): 322.
 “Effective at Once,” February 25, 1919, File 72-A-1, Part 5, Box 1272, General Records 1914-34. The rates were raised in 1922 to 14, 10, 8 and 5 cents per hour.
 Caldwell B. Foos, [no title], in “Education by Travel,” 37.