The many people who had leprosy

Anna Axels Dotter, resident at St. Jørgen's Hospital in 1816 © Image courtesy of the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet.

Anna Axels Dotter, resident at St. Jørgen’s Hospital in 1816 © Image courtesy of the Hagströmer Medico-Historical Library, Karolinska Institutet.

Leprosy was a relatively common disease in Norway, all the way from the Middle Ages until the end of the 19th century. When systematic censuses began being taken in 1856, up to three per cent of the population was infected in certain districts along the coast of Western Norway. From 1856 until the last cases of leprosy were diagnosed in the 1950s, we know of 8,231 people who contracted the disease.

How the disease affected those afflicted and the way in which it impacted their lives varied. Many people applied for a place and moved into a hospital, while others remained at home with their families. Some were ostracised from society, while others were relatively well integrated in their local community. For some, living at a hospital felt like the best option, while for others, their unhappiness or homesickness was so great that they moved or ran away. Some experienced their spouse, parents or siblings also becoming ill, while others were the only one in their family to contract leprosy. Some people died after just a few years, while others lived a long life with the disease and ended up dying of other causes.

The history of the many people who lived with leprosy in Bergen, Western Norway and the rest of Norway is a forgotten part of our recent history. The plight of countless individuals has been forgotten. Fortunately, some accounts of what their lives were like live on through their descendants and the archives. There are stories of separation and hard times but also of strong family bonds and the help they received from compassionate human beings.


Letter with application to transfer to another hospital. Bergen City Archives.

Kari Nilsdatter 

Kari Nilsdatter Spidsøen was admitted to Pleiestiftelsen Hospital at the age of 16. She lived there for almost 18 years before applying for a transfer to St. Jørgen’s Hospital after Hansen conducted an experiment on her, which led to a court trial in 1880.

Read more

Paper basket that belonged to Langøen. Foto: Bergen City Museum.

The Langøen siblings

The two siblings were from a family in which a number of other family members also contracted leprosy. The siblings and their mother travelled to Pleiestiftelsen in Bergen and lived there for the rest of their lives. They died at the ages of 24 and 26.

Read more

Three siblings from Sotra. Photo from Marta Lillian Ekerhovds novel.

Three siblings from Sotra 

The three siblings from Sotra, who were diagnosed in the 1950s, were the last people in Norway to have leprosy. After four years of treatment with promin, they all recovered and left the hospital.  afterwards.

Read more

Avdal family house in Hagaberg. Photo belongs to Petter Arnt Løvdahl.

Marita Avdal 

Marita Avdal (1865–1916) lived with her family at Hagaberg mountain farm in Sogn for the rest of her life, despite her leprosy diagnosis. They built a separate annex to comply with the rules of isolation, but in her daily life, Marita continued living with her husband and children.

Read more

Knitted petticoat. Photo: Bergen City Museum.

Jørgine O. Bergsvik

Jørgine Bergsvik (1857–1937) lived for over 50 years at the leprosy hospitals in Bergen, first at Lungegård Hospital and later at Pleiestiftelsen. She lived to be 80 years old, and today a preserved knitted petticoat in an example of how diligently she worked throughout her long life.

Read more

Veined grandfather clock. Photo: Bergen City Museum.

Kari Sivertsdatter 

Kari Sivertsdatter moved to the healthy ward at St. Jørgen’s the year after her husband was admitted to the hospital. Their son Sivert was also diagnosed with leprosy at the age of 13, but later recovered and was discharged from the hospital. Kari lived at St. Jørgen’s for almost 40 years.

Read more

Sketch, samples from Johannes Giil 1874. Bergen City Archives.

Johannes Giil

When Hansen observed the leprosy bacterium for the first time on a February evening in 1873, it was in samples taken from the nasal wing of 19-year-old Johannes Jonassen Giil from Hyllestad in Sogn, who was admitted to Pleiestiftelsen Hospital when he was 12 years old.

Read more

Old bed chamber. Photo: Bergen City Museum.

Peder Nilsen Søvig 

Peder Nilsen Søvig (1858–1881) was one of many residents who applied to be transferred from Pleiestiftelsen to St. Jørgen’s. At the age of 23, having been at the hospital for nine-and-a-half years, he dreamed of having a room to himself.

Read more

Application from Lars Eriksen Flaktveit 1751. Bergen City Archive.

A married couple on the healthy ward 

In 1751, Lars Erichsen Flaktveit and his ‘ancient wife’ Ingebor Bastesdatter managed to get a place among the healthy residents at St. Jørgen’s Hospital. There are a number of accounts of them both being ‘very weak and frail’.

Read more

Old bed chamber. Photo: Bergen City Museum.

57 years at St. Jørgen’s Hospital

When Karen Bergesdatter was admitted to St. Jørgen’s Hospital in 1721, no one knew she would be one of the longest-staying residents. She died at the age of 97 having spent 57 years at the hospital.

Read more

Old bed chamber. Photo: Bergen City Museum.

Kari Nilsdatter in Bergen

Kari Nilsdatter from Korskirken parish in Bergen applied for a place at St. Jørgen’s in the spring of 1752. She wrote that, in her great poverty, she had been helped by ‘compassionate people’, but that no one could accommodate her now that she was sick. 

Read more

Section of hand drawn copy of map from Geelkerck, 1646. Bergen City Archives.

People with leprosy in the 16th century 

Little is known about those affected by leprosy in Bergen before the 18th century, but we gain some insight from Absalon Pedersøn Beyer’s diary from the 16th century. The diary features people from ‘the Spital’, i.e. St. Jørgen’s Hospital.

Read more

Doctors and leprosy in Bergen

Meeting for doctors i Bergen 1885. Photo: Peder Christiansen. University of Bergen Library.

Meeting for doctors i Bergen 1885. Photo: Peder Christiansen. University of Bergen Library.

At the turn of the 19th century, medical activities were already starting to take place at St. Jørgen’s Hospital. Although it was primarily a care institution, a number of the city doctors conducted curative trials at St. Jørgen’s. However, it was only when D. C. Danielssen began practising at the hospital in 1839 that more systematic examinations and treatments were attempted. After Lungegård Hospital opened in 1849, it was primarily there that scientific investigations and curative trials were conducted, while St. Jørgen’s and Pleiestiftelsen were largely used as care institutions.

During the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a number of doctors worked on leprosy for all or part of their careers. A number of them were affiliated with several of the leprosy hospitals, either during different periods or at the same time. For example, Armauer Hansen was both a doctor at Pleiestiftelsen Hospital and an assistant physician at Lungegård Hospital, as well as doctor at St. Jørgen’s and Chief Medical Officer for Leprosy.

The doctors had different points of view on many matters, not least on the cause of the disease and possible treatments. What they had in common, however, was their dedication and extensive efforts to gain more knowledge about the disease. Such efforts included autopsies and observations, urine and blood analyses, and eventually microscopic analysis of tissue samples.

When Reidar Melsom stopped working as a doctor at Pleiestiftelsen Hospital in 1957, it signified the end of an era that spanned over a century of extensive efforts by doctors specialising in leprosy. You can read more here about the most important doctors from that period.

Portrait J. J. Hjort.

Jens Johan Hjort

In 1832, Hjort travelled to Western Norway and visited St. Jørgen’s Hospital. In the years that followed, he worked to establish a state sanatorium for leprosy in Bergen.

Read more

Portrait C. W. Boeck. Leprosy Museum St. Jørgens Hospital.

Carl Wilhelm Boeck

Boeck collaborated closely with Daniel C. Danielssen in Bergen, and they published the work ‘On Leprosy’ together in 1847, which became a reference work for the disease.

Read more

Portrait Dr. O. G. Høegh.

Ove Guldberg Høegh

Høegh was Norway’s first ‘Chief Medical Officer for Leprosy’ and he took the initiative to establish the National Leprosy Registry of Norway.

Read more

Portrait Dr. Danielssen. Leprosy Museum St. Jørgen's Hospital.

Daniel C. Danielssen

Danielssen was the first to begin systematic studies of leprosy in Bergen. He was considered the leading leprosy researcher and clinician of his time.

Read more

Portrait Dr. Løberg.

Timandus Løberg

Løberg was a doctor at both Lungegård Hospital and Pleiestiftelsen Hospital. From 1858 to 1875, he was ‘Chief Medical Officer for Leprosy’ and had a significant influence on efforts to combat the disease. 

Read more

Portrait Holmboe.

Jens Andreas Holmboe 

Holmboe was employed as a doctor at all three leprosy hospitals in Bergen between 1858 and 1863, before he became head physician at Bergen kommunale sykehus, a local hospital for Bergen municipality.

Read more

Dr. Nicoll. Cropped photo: University of Bergen Library.

Nils B. T. Nicoll

In 1863, Nicoll was assistant physician at Lungegård Hospital and physician at St. Jørgen’s Hospital. He later spent two periods working as a physician at Pleiestiftelsen Hospital, where he also lived.

Read more

Portrait Armauer Hansen. Leprosy Museum St. Jørgen's Hospital.

G. H. Armauer Hansen

Armauer Hansen is undoubtedly the most famous Norwegian physician of all time, not least because he discovered the leprosy bacterium and thus became the first to identify and describe a bacterium as the cause of a chronic disease.

Read more

Portrait Eduard Bøckmann.

Eduard Bøckmann

Bøckmann was an assistant physician at Lungegård Hospital from 1875 to 1886 and helped to establish the journal Medicinsk Revue. In 1887, Bøckmann hosted Armauer Hansen’s research stay in the United States, which he also financed.

Read more

Painted portrait Dr. Lie. Cropped photo: Odd R. Schibsted Monge. Painting belongs to Det medicinske selskap i Bergen.

Hans Peter Lie

Lie started his career at Lungegård Hospital and later became a physician at Pleiestiftelsen Hospital, where he spent 40 years. From 1912, he was also Chief Medical Officer for Leprosy and assumed Hansen’s position as the leading figure in Norwegian leprosy research.

Read more

Maleri Looft. Foto: Odd R. Schibsted Monge. Utsnitt. Tilhører Det Medicinske Selskap i Bergen.

Carl August Looft 

In 1890, Looft became assistant physician at Lungegård Hospital and physician at St. Jørgen’s Hospital. He collaborated with Armauer Hansen and they published a number of important works together, before he started his own practice as a paediatrician.

Read more

Portrait Reidar Melsom. Cropped photo: Knud Knudsen. University of Bergen Library.

Reidar Melsom 

Melsom was the last Chief Medical Officer for Leprosy before the position was discontinued in 1957. He was a physician at Pleiestiftelsen Hospital from 1933 to 1957, where he also lived with his family.

Read more

All Rights Reserved