Carville is a small hamlet in Central Louisiana with a population of about 1,000. This little town, only 20 miles south of Baton Rouge, was once home to America’s only national leprosarium.
Political operative James “the Ragin’ Cajun” Carville hails from this area; in fact, his family ran the Carville post office, which processed all of the leprosarium’s mail, which just might explain how this small town got that name.
The Louisiana Leper Home was established in 1894 at Indian Camp Plantation in Iberville Parish. The 450-acre property at 5445 Point Clair Road has changed hands a few times: It was purchased in 1917 by the U.S. government (becoming U.S. Marine Hospital No. 66) from the state of Louisiana and then returned in recent years to state ownership. It was only in 1981 that an outpatient clinic was established.
From 1894 to 1920, the facility was known as the Louisiana Leper Home; after 1921, it became the National Leprosarium. From 1896 through 2005, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul played a vital role tending to and caring for patients.
A 1945 report by the National Research Council accounts for 1,625 patients admitted between Feb. 1, 1921, and the time of the report, with an average length of stay of approximately 2,055 days, or 5.5 years, per patient.
For a brief period in the ’90s (1991 to 1994), Carville even served as a minimum-security federal prison, but that situation did not suit the patients, and the prisoners were soon moved out.
In 1999, the state military took over the site. Now, the Gillis W. Long Center is home to the Louisiana National Guard in Carville, as well as their youth and job-training programs and more.
Carville’s facilities have been revamped and include the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, which has 6,000 square feet of exhibit space with exhibits on patient life, the disease and its cures, staff members and the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul.
About 95 percent of the world’s population is naturally immune to Hansen’s Disease, or leprosy, yet in the U.S., there are between 100 and 200 new cases each year. Of those cases, an estimated 30 arise in Texas and Louisiana.
The medical treatment facility closed its doors forever in 1999; now, the only facility in the U.S. dedicated to Hansen’s Disease is the National Hansen’s Disease Clinical Center (800-642-2477) at Ochsner Medical Center in Baton Rouge.
Today, only 15 Hansen’s Disease patients, all 60 and older, some of whom have been in the residence for more than 50 years, remain at the facility.
The National Hansen’s Disease Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information or to schedule a walking tour, call (225) 642-1950 or visit hrsa.gov/hansens/museum.