Culion: Symbol for a health nightmare a century ago, leper colony’s archives are now an important part of global memory

in Photo: Equipment and facilities in Culion Leper Colony, once the biggest in the world.

THE United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) Memory of the World Committee for Asia and the Pacific (Mowcap) has inscribed the Culion Leprosy Archives to the Mowcap Regional Register during its 8th General Meeting in Gwangju, Republic of Korea, last May 30.

Housed at the Culion Museum and Archives in Culion, Palawan, the Culion Leprosy Archives boast of a wide collection of rare journals and reference materials on leprosy, as well as clinical records and letters of the island’s residents since 1906.

The archives also feature publications, such as the International Journal of Leprosy and Other Mycobacterial Diseases, of which the first editor in chief was the late Dr. Windsor Wade, an eminent American pathologist who carried out unprecedented investigations into the natural history, pathology and practical problems of leprosy.

Majority vote

The Culion Leprosy Archives garnered a majority vote from the 28-member Mowcap after having been strongly recommended by the Mowcap Register Sub-Committee for Inscription. Dr. Arturo Cunanan, chief of the Culion Sanitarium and General Hospital (CSGH), spearheaded the nomination of the archives with the support of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) and the facilitation of the Unesco National Commission of the Philippines (Unacom).

The archives are the second documentary collection to be inscribed from the Philippines after the inscription of the Presidential Papers of Manuel L. Quezon in 2010. The regional register also includes Cambodia’s TuolSleng Genocide Museum Archive, Australia’s Landmark Constitutional Documents of the Commonwealth of Australia, Fiji’s Polynesian Immigrants Records from 1876 to 1914, and Vietnam’s Royal Literature on Hue Royal Architecture from 1802 to 1945, among others.

In addition to the Culion archives’ being part of a prestigious list of documents and archives, inscription to Mowcap also allows documentary heritage workers and custodians to become part of an active community that advocates for the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage. Inscription has also helped custodians and member-states promote, publicize and pool resources to maintain collections.

‘Ghastly place’

The Philippine delegation to the 8th General Meeting of Mowcap was composed of Prof. Nick Deocampo, chairman of the Philippine National Committee for Memory of the World (MOW); Dr. Rene Escalante, chairman of the NHCP; and Joana Rizza Bagano, program officer of Unacom. The Philippine National Committee for MOW envisions increased promotion of Philippine documentary heritage, and more inscriptions to the national, regional and international MOW registers.

Culion was made a national dumping ground for people afflicted with leprosy in the early 1900s. Given a government, police and monetary systems of its own, it even had a separate cemetery for those who perished without seeing a cure.

On its early years of operation, the leprosarium was a ghastly place no one wanted to see. Hundreds of deaths were a daily occurrence. Moving piles of dead bodies to give them decent burials was a daunting task.

From 370 patients in 1906, lepers in the colony ballooned to 5,303 on its fifth year. Of these, 3,154 eventually died, 33 paroled and 114 escaped.

Ships would arrive at the port of Culion every three months bringing new patients. By 1931, its patient population would explode to 16,138. It reached an all-time high of 31,803 by the end of 1980. It was the health nightmare that would frighteningly become the world’s largest.

Cure at last

The 100-bed Culion leprosarium originally had one physician, Dr. Charles F. de Mey, four French sisters from the Order of Saint Paul Chartres, a Jesuit priest and several other employees.

The staff eventually grew with a chief physician, 12 clinical physicians, a dental surgeon, a pharmacist, 21 graduate nurses, 150 nursing aids and 13 more sisters from the same French charity.

Soon, scientists from all over the world converged in Culion, making it the world’s most organized and equipped leprosaria.

Further research and scientific studies resulted in a major breakthrough. In the 1980s a multi-drug therapy was developed, signaling the beginning of a new era. Cure for leprosy was found at last.

In 2006, a century later, the World Health Organization declared Culion leprosy-free. When that happened, clamor for recognition of Culion as a regular municipality started. On June 22, 1988, Congress passed a law authorizing qualified residents of the colony to vote for officials of the province.

The mandate

Unesco is the only United Nations agency with a mandate in culture preservation. To date, the Philippines has ratified two Unesco Conventions:

n 1972 Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage

n 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage

The work of the Philippine National Commission for Unesco (PH NatCom) in relation to these two conventions involves the coordination between different cultural institutions and their stakeholders to align them with Unesco’s vision. This is achieved by training site managers of both actual and potential World Heritage Sites throughout the Philippines.

Moreover, PH NatCom also participates in numerous capacity-building workshops and fora on different culture- and heritage-related topics through Unesco’s regional oOffices in Bangkok and Jakarta.

Aside from heritage-related work, PH NatCom also works toward the protection and promotion of cultural diversity through the creative industries by disseminating Unesco’s programs and projects on creativity and sustainable development. These include efforts to ratify the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, as well as helping introduce the Unesco Creative Cities Network to cities interested in being included in the network.

PH NatCom secretary-general

Assistant Secretary Lila Ramos Shahani currently heads the Philippine National Commission for Unesco. During the Aquino administration, she was assistant secretary and head of communications of the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cabinet Cluster, which covered 26 Philippine government agencies dealing with poverty and development. She was also spokesman of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.

Prior to this, she was assistant secretary and head of communications of the National Anti-Poverty Commission and deputy director of the Museum of Philippine Humanities at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

She also taught at the Asian Institute of Management, the Ateneo School of Government and the University of the Philippines. Shahani spent many years in New York, where she worked for Oxford University Press, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the United Nations Development Program.

She has published widely, both in academic and journalistic contexts. She grew up in such far-flung places as Romania, Australia, Austria, Kenya, India, the US and the UK, but is finally delighted to be back home.

She did her undergraduate work at Brown University, received a masters degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and is now a doctoral candidate at Oxford University.


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