Hero or villain?

The anniversary presentation for the International Leprosy Congress – “Hero or Villain? Preserving Hansen’s legacy in Bergen, Norway” – is now available online.

From the abstract: “149 years after Gerhard Armauer Hansen’s discovery of m. leprae, two competing historical narratives exist. 1) Hansen’s discovery turned leprosy from a divine curse to a disease rooted in material medicine, disenchanting superstition, and marking the beginning of the fight against stigma connected to the disease. 2) The discovery became proof that the disease was contagious, justifying prophylaxis based on cruel segregation, fueling stigma, and justifying unethical human experiments.

This presentation will discuss how Hansen’s legacy is preserved and communicated in Bergen, Norway. Was Hansen a hero, a villain – or perhaps a bit of both?

This paper presents and compares the two museums where Hansen’s legacy is presented to wider audiences in Bergen, Norway: The Leprosy Museum, and the Armauer Hansen Commemorative Rooms. The first focuses on the more than 500-year history of the leprosy institution, in particular the lives of the people affected by the disease. The second examines the medical research and the public health campaign that started around 1850, and that got a new rationale after Hansen’s research.

The exhibitions communicate pride in a successful public health campaign that managed to curb the number of new cases, putting Bergen on the map as a site for research, but also asks “at what price?”. The court case that led to Hansen losing his right to practice medicine, after an experiment on the patient Anne Nielsdatter Spidsøen, is presented in the same display as Hansen’s highest honors.

Conclusion: Hansen’s legacy is presented “warts and all”, based on a belief that the past has lessons to learn from. Rather than giving all the answers, a visit to one of the museums is a conversation starter for the dilemmas society face when faced with contagious disease.”

Manuscript: Magnus Vollset. Filming and editing: André Giæver Kvalvågnes, Frode Ims and Stine Mari Velsvik (Læringslabben). Thanks to Bymuseet, University of Bergen, and MHSB for support and facilitation.