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History

Founded by an Irishman 143 years ago, The Leprosy Mission has a deep connection to the island of Ireland. We are privileged to continue his legacy today.

Hearing God’s call

In 1869, Wellesley Bailey, a young Irishman, set sail for India. He originally intended to join the police force but, after lodging with a German Lutheran missionary and learning the local language, he felt that God was calling him to missionary work.

He applied to work with the American Presbyterian Mission and was sent to teach in one of their schools in Ambala, in the Punjab area of North India. It was during his training that he saw, for the first time, the devastating effects of leprosy.

Burdened with the suffering of leprosy-affected people

In 1873, Wellesley and his wife Alice (his childhood girlfriend whom he married in Bombay Cathedral in 1870) returned to Ireland.  They were both burdened with the suffering of the leprosy-affected people they saw in India who were severely disabled, rejected and living without any support. 

Help for people affected by leprosy was unheard of at the time and Wellesley and Alice took it upon themselves to raise awareness of the disease and its devastating consequences.  They began a speaking ministry, telling people about the needs of the leprosy patients they had met.

The Mission is born

The ‘Mission to Lepers’ was born in 1874 and, in response to the talks given by the Baileys, people began giving money and praying for the work. By the late 1870s the Mission was raising £900 a year and caring for 100 leprosy-affected people in North India.

During the next two decades, the Baileys travelled extensively to see the needs of leprosy-affected people to encourage support of the work.  Three support offices were formed in England and Mary Reed, was sent to India as the Mission’s first missionary. 

Building homes and hospitals

The Mission’s first hospital, Purulia Leprosy Hospital in West Bengal, opened in 1888.

Money raised by the Mission helped to build a home for leprosy-affected people in Neyyoor in South India, followed by the building of the first ‘Mission to Lepers’ home outside of India. 

In 1906 Wellesley toured the Far East extending the Mission’s work through China, then on to New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, back to China and then on to Malaysia, Singapore and India.  During this tour Wellesley gave more than 150 talks, met with many government officials and visited leprosy homes.

By the time Wellesley retired in 1917, the Mission was running 87 programmes in 12 countries funded by support offices in eight countries.

‘Born and cradled in prayer’

One of Wellesley Bailey’s greatest legacies to the Mission was his focus on prayer – he knew that nothing of significance could be achieved without it. Prayer (link to prayer page) remains the foundation on which all our work is built.

In one of his last speeches before retirement he said:

“The Mission has been born and cradled in prayer. It has been brought up on prayer; it has been nourished on prayer; and prayer has been at the bottom of its success since the first moments of its life.”

The Leprosy Mission timeline

  • 1874 – Mission to Lepers is born

    Dublin

    The Mission to Lepers is born when friends of missionaries Wellesley and Alice Bailey pledge to raise money to help leprosy sufferers in India. In the first year £600 is raised.

  • 1880s – First mission hospital

    Three support offices open in England. Mary Reed is sent to India as the Mission's first missionary. Purulia Leprosy Hospital in West Bengal opens with support from the Mission.

  • 1890s – India and beyond

    The Mission's first public meeting is held in London with the money raised helping to build a leprosy home and children's home in Neeyor, South India. Wellesley Bailey visits Mandalay, Burma, to open the first 'Mission to Lepers' home outside of India. Wellesley tours the US and Canada and a support office in Ontario opens. The Mission's work extends to China and Japan.

    Support groups sprang up in Britain, Canada and the USA. As a result the Mission was able to respond to pleas for help from Burma, China and Japan. This expansion was recognised in the society's new title - 'The Mission to Lepers in India and the East'.

  • 1910s – Into Africa

    Work begins in Africa. Income and interest in the Mission's work grow and Wellesley and Alice Bailey travel to China, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and India visiting projects, raising awareness of leprosy and asking for support. By the time Wellesley retires in 1917, The Mission has 87 programmes in 12 countries with support offices in eight countries. The annual income is £40,000.

  • 1920s and 30s – New leprosy hospital in India

    The Mission's headquarters move from Dublin to London. A new leprosy hospital is opened in Faizabad, India. From 1939-45 much of the Mission's work is affected by the Second World War, particularly in China, Japan and Burma. Many patients are dispersed and hospitals overrun.

  • 1940s and 50s – Reconstructive surgery pioneered

    Dr Paul Brand pioneers medical research and reconstructive surgery on leprosy deformities in hands and feet in South India. The first effective cure for leprosy, Dapsone, is introduced. During the next 15 years, millions of patients are treated. The Mission's work is extended into Africa.

  • 1954 – World Leprosy Day is born

    The first World Leprosy Day takes place inspired by French writer and humanitarian Raoul Follereau who visited leprosy colonies across the globe. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of leprosy – one of the most feared and stigmatised diseases – and let people know it is curable. The day is observed on 30 January or its nearest Sunday in commemoration of the death of Gandhi who understood the devastating effects of leprosy.

  • 1960s – Search for new drugs

    Scientists work to discover new drugs that are effective against leprosy as many people are discovered to have Dapsone-resistant leprosy.

  • 1965 – Change of name

    The Mission changes its name from the Mission to Lepers to The Leprosy Mission to avoid the negative connotations of the word 'leper'.

  • 1970s – Outside the hospital

    The Leprosy Mission begins to extend its work outside hospitals to people's homes and communities, educating people about the first signs of leprosy and that there is a cure available and conducting field vists to actively detect new cases of leprosy in rural villages.

  • 1981 – MDT rolled out

    The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends a new combination drug treatment for leprosy – multidrug therapy (MDT). People are completely cured in as little as six months. Many, however, are left with irreversible disabilities and secondary reactions to the treatment.

  • 1990s – Focus on transforming lives

    As many more people are cured of leprosy, caring for people with lasting disabilities through social, economic and physical rehabilitation becomes increasingly important.

  • 2000s – Helping communities

    Our work becomes more community focused. The 2004 tsunami hits parts of south India where we have projects. People affected by the disaster are provided with low-cost homes.

    We also responded rapidly to the needs of thousands of people displaced by Cyclone Nargis which brought devastation to Myanmar (Burma) in 2008. Disability resource centres provided support to leprosy-affected people and those with disabilities helping them to rebuild their lives.

  • 2010 – Scientists at work

    American Leprosy Missions, one of The Leprosy Mission’s partner organisations, in collaboration with IDRI (the Infectious Disease Research Institute), are investing millions of dollars into developing a diagnostic test and vaccine.

  • 2011 – The Global Fellowship is established

    A new charter is agreed making all participating countries 'members' of The Leprosy Mission Global Fellowship. The member countries consist of both 'supporting' (donor) countries and 'implementing' (field) countries. Both are equally valued members and partners in the work. TLM International operates as a central 'hub' to coordinate the needs of the members. Find out more about the Global Fellowship

  • 2015 and onwards

    There is a growing focus on advocacy work; educating communities, advising governments and training health care workers about leprosy in an effort to bring an end to stigma and discrimination that can still blight people’s lives.

    Vaccine: American Leprosy Missions has committed to working towards the development of the world’s first leprosy vaccine.

    Diagnostic test: Researchers have developed a new diagnostic test for leprosy that offers hope of speedy diagnosis and treatment. It will initially only be available in Brazil. The test is said to as simple and quick as a pregnancy test. It is expected that it will be able to diagnose leprosy cases a year before symptoms appear. The sooner someone takes multidrug therapy, the more likely it is that they will be completely free of any disability.

    Triple zero campaign: TLM, along with other leprosy organisations, is focusing on achieving zero transmission of leporsy, zero disabilities, and zero discrimination of leprosy-affected people.

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