‘Leprosy Coins’ and the Legacy of Stigma

Two views of a coin from the Culion Leper Colony.
Two views of a coin from the Culion Leper Colony.

In the early 1960s, a Nevada physician received a curious gift from one of his patients: a handful of loose coins. But these weren’t just spare change. Robert Myles’s patient was a coin dealer, and among the hodgepodge of old coins he’d given his internist, three stood out as peculiar.

They were coins from the Philippines, but nothing like Myles, a casual coin enthusiast since boyhood, had ever seen before. Unlike the country’s traditional peso, these were marked with a caduceus, the ancient symbol showing two serpents encircling a staff. Made of cheap metal rather than gold, they didn’t seem particularly valuable. And they weren’t; in fact, even when they were in circulation, they weren’t considered legal tender.

Decades before they landed in Myles’s palm, the coins were exclusively used on a secluded island two hundred miles away from Manila: the Culion Leper Colony, which at one point was home to over 5,000 people quarantined to the island. Myles had stumbled upon “leprosy coins.”

In many quarantines, these coins were the only form of money that leprosy patients could access during their indefinite medical exiles. They were created with the intent to keep disease from spreading by restricting patients’ handling of money, which was inaccurately feared as “tainted” by leprosy, from the mainstream circulation. And, with their value rendered null beyond the walls of their respective compounds, these currencies also made it nearly impossible for desperate patients to escape. You might be able to slip past the sentries keeping watch or wriggle through the fencing of your settlement’s enclosure, but you can’t get too far with the equivalent of Monopoly money in your pocket.

Workers at Culion Leper Colony, Philippines.
Workers at Culion Leper Colony, Philippines.

Not every leprosy quarantine settlement, or leprosarium, had its own money. But a handful, from Brazil to Japan, issued alternative currencies through the early- to mid-20th century as one of an arsenal of measures to further isolate their patients from society and soothe the fears of their surrounding communities.

Some currencies were privately minted by the leprosariums themselves, according to Jean Myles, Bob’s wife, while others were issued by the country’s health ministry. Some, like the money used at the Palo Seco quarantine in the Panama Canal Zone, were made right here in the United States, at the Philadelphia Mint. Some are stout, copper coins that were later tossed overboard into the ocean, Jean says. Others, like the gorgeous paper notes from Malaysia’s Sungei Buloh settlement, were painstakingly illustrated and later burned en masse. As for the ones that survive? They remain a tangible example of one of the most enduring medical stigmas in human history.

That happenstance encounter with a few loose Culion coins sparked a lifelong interest for the Myleses, who together spent years accumulating a stunning and encyclopedic collection of leprosy currency from across the globe. “Bob got interested, and he started looking around, and found several dealers that had them,” Jean says, adding that Bob had also seen and treated a patient with leprosy (now referred to as Hansen’s disease) in Reno. She recalls one of Bob’s regular coin dealers saying that whenever he’d get a new leprosy coin, he’d wash it in alcohol, then wash his hands with soap, and then immediately give Bob a call.

Culion Island, Philippines.
Culion Island, Philippines. Culion Musuem and Archives

Bob passed away in 2014, but five years prior, the Myles family donated their extensive collection of leprosy currency to the National Hansen’s Disease Museum, located at the former leprosy hospital and settlement in Carville, Louisiana. There, gleaming from beneath plastic protectors, are dozens of coins from leprosariums around the world: Brazil’s Colonia Santa Teresa, Panama’s Palo Seco, and, of course, Culion in the Philippines.

The collection, donated to the museum by the Myleses and fellow coin collector James Archibald, is displayed alongside other relics of the disease—rudimentary medical instruments and ointments, antique wicker coffins, and handmade Mardi Gras floats crafted to fit over wheelchairs. With 123 coins and 14 paper bills on display, the collection represents currencies from five countries: the Philippines, Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Brazil.

These currencies created an insular closed loop of commerce in their respective settlements, where patients often held jobs from gardening to cooking to clerical work. Their earned wages were issued in settlement currency,…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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