Cambridge’s past is India’s present. Now an Indian man cured of leprosy calls for a future free of the ancient disease

A tunnel that runs from the Leper Chapel on Newmarket Road into the centre of Cambridge with the skeletons of those who died of leprosy buried under Cambridge United’s ground are the stories the Vicar of the chapel hears most often.

But folklore was cast aside at Cambridge’s oldest complete building dating back to the 12th century this morning [Wednesday 25 July] with the visit of an Indian man cured of leprosy to the Leper Chapel.

Ganesh Muthusamy, 32, is known as a ‘leprosy champion’ in India where the ancient stigma surrounding leprosy is still rife. Despite there being an effective cure since 1982, people hide the early signs of leprosy for fear of being thrown out of their family, home, school, workplace or community and left to beg for survival. If left untreated, the disease can lead to terrible disabilities including blindness. 

Ganesh was diagnosed and treated for leprosy while still at school, by which time he had already lost sensation in his right foot which developed ulcers and became badly damaged.  Through corrective surgery and protective footwear from a Leprosy Mission Hospital in India he is now able to walk again. 

Having overcome adversity himself, Ganesh is a passionate human rights defender helping others overcome problems resulting from leprosy and travelled to the UK to attend the Global Disability Summit hosted at Olympic Park yesterday [Tuesday 24 July].

While leprosy is a disease of the past in the UK with our last indigenous case diagnosed in 1798, the disease is a 21st century problem globally with a quarter of a million cases diagnosed each year, more than half of which are in India.

Ganesh said: “When I was first diagnosed with leprosy I was worried people would isolate me. I did not tell anyone that I was diagnosed, except my family, because of the fear surrounding the disease. So I guess that’s self-stigma as well.

“One member of my family did, in fact, want me to leave the family but thankfully is ok with the situation now.

“I find it hard to work because I can’t stand or walk for long because, although I have had reconstructive surgery to correct foot drop, leprosy has left me with a numb right foot.

“It is difficult for people with a disability to work in India but people affected by leprosy would not be included in the disability group – they segregate us.

“You see this in India which still has 850 leprosy colonies – inclusion isn’t happening which is affecting our fundamental rights. 

“I’m still not finding a proper job when leprosy is a curable disease that anyone can get in India. People need to know about it as if it is treated early then they will not develop disabilities.”

Prof Helen Weinstein of Clare Hall, Cambridge, told an audience from the local community at the Leper Chapel that there was a high number of leprosy cases in Cambridge in the middle ages with people confined to the leprosy hospital which was situated alongside the Leper Chapel on Newmarket Road. Leprosy was a much-feared disease like it is in India today, and there was no cure at the time.

While people affected by leprosy in Cambridge had to wear special outfits and even shout out “unclean” to warn people to stay clear, there was kindness and compassion for people affected by leprosy with the hospital and chapel funded by philanthropists through the nearby Barnwell Priory with monks ministering to patients at the chapel.

In fact, King John of Magna Carta fame granted a licence for a fair to be held to help raise money to support the leprosy hospital in Cambridge - Stourbridge Fair – which remains an annual event in Cambridge to this day. 

Prof Weinstein said: “While it is not the spectacular King’s College or awe-inspiring St John’s College of Cambridge, the Leper Chapel is one of the city’s most loved chapels and was founded before scholars settled in Cambridge in 1209.

“People were very concerned by leprosy in England which is why people with leprosy were segregated to a peaceful part of Cambridge away from the town centre. You weren’t allowed to see your family again and, if a person with leprosy had to be out in public, they had to wear clothes that marked them out and hide their faces. 

“But it is important to remember the Leper Chapel is here in Cambridge because of compassion and philanthropy.”

Ganesh reflected on his visit to the Leper Chapel, likening it to ‘coming home’.

“I’m very happy to be here because people who had leprosy in England prayed in this building for people like me,” he said.

“And now I’m praying for the next generation to not be disabled by leprosy. Being here feels very emotional and almost like coming home.”

Today’s event was hosted by Cambridge Past, Present and Future which own and care for the Leper Chapel.