Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer


The Spread Of Leprosy Disease In Kalaupapa

In 1865 the Kalaupapa peninsula on Moloka`i was chosen by the kingdom of Hawai`i as the place of exile for Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) patients. Its isolation, surrounded on three sides by ocean and on the fourth side by the steep 1600-foot (488m) pali (cliff), was a contributing factor in the selection of this location.

Leprosy, is believed to have spread to Hawaii from China in 1848. In early 1866, the first leprosy victims were shipped to Kalaupapa. There were no buildings, shelters nor potable water available. The first arrivals dwelled in rock enclosures, caves, and in the most rudimentary shacks, built of sticks and dried leaves.

The Board of Health expected the patients to be able to sustain themselves by living off the land however, most patients were too ill or demoralized to be self-sufficient. As stories spread of the poor conditions, many Hawaiian people hid their afflicted relatives and friends, hoping to prevent their discovery and a one-way trip to the settlement. Rather than be separated from loved ones, some healthy family members chose to go into isolation at Kalaupapa with their loved ones as a kokua, a helper.

A Catholic missionary priest from Belgium, Father Damien deVeuster, arrived at Kalaupapa in 1873. Upon his arrival he brought attention to the poor living conditons and made major improvements including building homes, churches and coffins and arranging for medical services and funding from Honolulu.

The disease was put in remission in the 1940s with the advent of sulfone drugs. The disease is no longer contagious and the patients are free to come and go as they please. However, many of them choose to stay at Kalaupapa.

By law, access is strictly regulated. You must take the tour offered by either Damien Tours of Kalaupapa or Kekaula Tours, both operated by former patients. The other way to go is to be invited as a guest by one of the residents. There are no roads to the peninsula so you must hike, ride a mule, or fly in.