Few places in the world better illustrate the human capacity for endurance or for charity than the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula, on the island of Moloka’i. The area achieved notoriety in 1865 when the Kingdom of Hawaii`i instituted a century-long policy of forced segregation of persons afflicted with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. During the 75-year epidemic, leprosy considerations permeated the islands' legal code, the Hawaiian government spent up to five percent of its total budget for the care of the sick, and for a time an estimated two percent of the Hawaiians were afflicted with leprosy.
The number of people living in the Kalaupapa Peninsula and its neighboring valleys when the isolation settlement was established at Kalawao was small. As throughout the rest of Hawaii, a series of epidemics in the mid- to late 19th century decimated the Hawaiian population. In 1866 when the first leprosy patients were left at Kalawao, the remaining original inhabitants were subsequently relocated with the sale of their lands to the Board of Health. By 1900 non-patient Hawaiians were gone from the entire peninsula. Nine hundred years of connection with the local region were broken.
The Kalaupapa Peninsula was chosen as a place to set apart land to seclude people believed capable of spreading the disease because it was isolated and fairly inaccessible. To the south, the peninsula was cut off from the rest of Moloka`i by a sheer cliff about 2,000 feet high. The ocean surrounded the east, north and west sides. In good weather, landings were only practical at Kalaupapa and Kalawao; both inhabited by Hawaiians. Second, the land could support people. Vegetables such as sweet potatoes, fruits, and taro could be grown. The ocean and tidal pools provided food and fresh water was available from Waikolu and Waihanau Valleys.
On January 6, 1866, the first group of nine men and three women leprosy patients were dropped off at the mouth of Waikolu Valley, the closest accessible point to Kalawao on the southeast side of the peninsula. By October, 101 men and 41 women had been left in an isolation settlement surrounded by controversy and concern from the beginning. At first, the Board of Health thought patients would be self-supporting. After all, Hawaiian people had lived on the peninsula for generations, sustaining themselves and raising sweet potatoes for export, and the very first patients moved into houses left behind by Hawaiians who had lived in the area. It soon became apparent that most patients were too ill or demoralized to be self-sufficient. As stories spread of the deplorable conditions, many Hawaiian people hid their afflicted relatives and friends, hoping to prevent their discovery and a one-way trip to certain death.
In spite of the Board of Health’s efforts to improve conditions, including building a hospital and homes, supplies of food and clothing, housing, and medical care could not keep up with the numbers of people being sent to Kalawao. Starting in 1873 major improvements were made because of the arrival of Father Damien, a Catholic Priest, and the interest and support of the next two Hawaiian kings, William Charles Lunalilo and David Kalakaua. Father Damien suffered from the disease during the final four years of his 16-year voluntary service to the lepers of the peninsula. The news of Damien's presence among the colony brought better facilities to the settlement and upon his death in 1893 he became famous as the "martyr of Molokai," generating world-wide movements of concern for those suffering from Hansen's disease and the search for a cure.
During the years 1888 to 1902 the isolation laws in Hawaii were strictly enforced and the population at Kalawao swelled to over 1,100. During this period the Bishop Home for girls opened in Kalaupapa (managed by Mother Marianne Cope and the Sisters of St. Francis), and the Baldwin Home for boys opened in Kalawao (managed by Brother Joseph Dutton and the Brothers of the Sacred Heart). It was also during this time that people began gradually moving to west side of the peninsula to the Hawaiian fishing village of Kalaupapa.
The Board of Health began relocating patients and facilities from the windward side of the peninsula to the leeward side, where the climate was warmer and dryer, and where freight and passengers could be landed more easily. Water lines were extended from Waikolu Valley to Kalaupapa to supply fresh water. The isolation settlement was expanded to include not just Kalawao, but the entire peninsula. The last remaining private property was purchased and all non-patients removed.
By 1919 treatments of chaulmoogra oil, derived from seeds of trees found in India and Southeast Asia, offered hope as a cure for Hansen’s disease. People dared to think Kalaupapa settlement could be closed. After 10 years, however, belief in the curative powers of the oil waned and despite years of medical research a cure seemed as remote as ever. Kalaupapa’s physical infrastructure was in need of an overhaul. Territory of Hawaii Governor Lawrence M. Judd reorganized the leprosy control program in the early 1930s and undertook ambitious construction and rehabilitation projects. State-of-the-art water and power systems were installed; facilities such as a hospital, store, service station, and houses were built; and roads were paved. After Brother Joseph Dutton died in 1931, a new home for boys was built at Kalaupapa and all of the children moved over from Kalawao.
Dramatic changes both in the treatment of Hansen’s disease and in attitudes towards patients occurred with the discovery of sulfone drugs as a cure for the disease. Introduced into Hawaii in 1946, the new medications brought almost immediate reductions of symptoms and vast improvements in the quality of health and life. Former Governor Judd became Kalaupapa’s resident superintendent in 1947, and he and his wife Eva Marie promoted social activities and adult education classes. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Lion’s Club, American Legion, and other organizations opened Kalaupapa to the wider world. Many remaining physical barriers separating patients from workers were removed.
With drug therapies, Hansen’s disease patients were no longer contagious and there was no further need for isolation. In 1969 the century-old laws were finally abolished. Former Hansen’s disease patients living in Kalaupapa today have chosen to remain here, most for the rest of their lives. Today, people can visit the Kalaupapa National Historic Park on the island of Molokai in the state of Hawaii. The Kalaupapa Leprosy Settlement is also a designated National Historic Landmark.