06 Apr2007


In the early 1900’s with the Americans in power, there was a fairly high incidence of leprosy in the Philippines and it was decided that all lepers would be segregated and sent of to isolation in one of several locations across the country. One leper “colony,” a sani2term which sounds really horrible, but was a fact of life then, was in what is now Naga, Cebu, another was in Manila and a third was established and located on the “Island of No Return,” or Culion Island in Northern Palawan in 1906. Not too much was understood about leprosy at the time but fear of contagion meant that they separated all those already afflicted. At its peak, the Culion “facility” was home to over 5,000 lepers. Today, there are less than 200 leprosy patients left in the hospital but the town’s population has grown to over 20,000. Families often moved to Culion to be close to one patient (e.g. a spouse and children would move to the island to care for the sick spouse) and eventually a town formed though it was only recognized as a distinct municipality just a dozen or so years ago.

What struck me about the town and the hospital was its rich, sad, unique and well, interesting history. The island location was selected for its remoteness first and foremost. sani3It was difficult to “escape” once you got there. It had arable land and people continued with as normal a life as they could manage on the island. A large hospital compound was built, an enormous church and eventually a town life also established itself. But all through this last hundred years (the town of Culion celebrated its centeniary last year), many hundreds, then thousands of people died here with leprosy and many dozens of people from doctors, nurses, priests and educators tried to make them more comfortable as they got sicker and sicker. Today there is a very interesting small museum on the premises of the Culion Sanitarium and here once gets a very interesting historical overview of the “colony,” complete with photos, news clippings, rattan human powered “ambulances” for transporting patients, some sample money for use only on the island as it was feared money contaminated by handling by lepers would affect the population outside of Culion, etc.

There was pretty good documentation of all the goings on in Culion because it was carefully administered and frankly, because I suspect there wasn’t much else to do there…so diaries, letters, etc. from the island painted an interesting portrait of life there. It sani4sounds as though there was a great degree of dignity despite the desperate circumstances, or at least more than I personally would have imagined. A visit to the island is an eye opener; or at least it was for me. It certainly made one aware of the hardships others had to endure and made one ever more grateful for the life that you have today…so much more cushy than most would ever have dreamed of. I knew someone once who was a nurse and decided to devote many years of service at a hospital in Palawan (almost certainly this Culion facility) and no one else seemed to understand why she would voluntarily stay on beyond her original commitment of a few years…after my own visit there I think I now understand why she did it and why acts like that are so incredibly and utterly admirable. If you are ever in Coron and have time for a moving and historical daytrip, visit the small seaside town of Culion and take in some history at the Culion Sanitarium and the impressive church just a few steps away…



  1. ykmd says:

    Hopefully the bacteria that causes leprosy won’t ever mutate and become multi-drug resistant the way TB has in many areas(both diseases are caused by mycobacteria). This was fascinating MM. Is that last pic the rattan ambulance that you wrote of? Looks like a hammock to me?

    Apr 6, 2007 | 9:29 pm


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  3. MEL WOOD says:

    This is a very interesting and very informative post, MM. I knew that there was this leper colony in Palawan, but beyond that, I didn’t know anything about it. Thank you.

    Apr 7, 2007 | 8:41 am

  4. Marketman says:

    ykmd, yes, the last photo is in fact the rattan ambulance where patients were ferried to and fro by two men carrying the poles on their shoulders. Mel, the colony and its history was fascinating…so hidden away and yet so proud and sad at the same time…

    Apr 7, 2007 | 10:20 am

  5. pixeldose says:

    Was the top photo a scan of the original photograph or did you photograph it through your digicam?

    I don’t know much about leprosy and so I thought its best that I address my ignorance by looking up some information about it.

    The following was lifted from the American Leprosy Mission website and I thought they answer some of the questions I originally had about the disease.

    How is it spread?
    In most cases, it is spread through long-term contact with a person who has the disease but has not been treated.
    Most people will never develop the disease even if they are exposed to the bacteria. Of the world’s population, 95% have a natural immunity to leprosy.

    In South Louisiana and Texas, some armadillos carry this bacteria. We do not know for certain if humans can get the bacteria from armadillos.

    Is it inherited?
    Leprosy is not an inherited disease. Also, it is rare for more than one person in the same family to have this disease.

    Can other people get leprosy from a patient?
    Patients on medicine for leprosy do not spread the disease. When a person is placed on medication, most of the bacteria are killed within a few days. Within two weeks of starting the medicine, there is no risk of spreading the disease to anyone else.

    It is not necessary to isolate a person with leprosy at any time. Also, it is NOT transmitted through sexual contact or pregnancy.

    Do household members need treatment?
    It is not necessary for them to take any medication. When someone is diagnosed with leprosy, a physician for any sign of the disease should examine all the household members. The physician determines any need for further follow-up exams at that time.


    Apr 7, 2007 | 12:37 pm

  6. Mila says:

    One of my mother’s many vocations/career paths included working for the Philippine Leprosy mission in the 1980s and 1990s. She never brought us to Culion, but I remember going to Naga a few times, usually during a regular materials mission visit. I have memories of loading boxes of Selsun Blue shampoo to bring to the Naga care center for the patients. Leprosy didn’t seem such a scary proposition even then since my mom made us well aware of where it came from and related matters pertaining to care and infection. Watching some of old movies where lepers were villified made us very confused in those days!

    Apr 7, 2007 | 3:16 pm

  7. Leslie Pe Go says:

    Hi! Been follwoing your post on Palawan. My father is from Coron and I have been convincing him to take us around. He has not been back in Coron for 20yrs or so but can still remember the nice beaches and all. Hope you can refer me to your guide, my dad said evryone in Coron knows everyone. Maybe your guide would know relatives of my dad. I’m desperately seeking for someone to take us around. My maiden name is PE, maybe if you mention this to your guide it would ring a bell.

    Desperatelt Seeking Coron,

    Apr 7, 2007 | 10:52 pm

  8. Marketman says:

    Pixeldose, the first photo was just blurred cause I moved and didn’t take another one…it was from a large blown up photo in the museum… Leslie, details on hotel and boat guide I used are coming up in posts in the days ahead…stay tuned. Thanks.

    Apr 8, 2007 | 8:59 am

  9. Faye says:

    My bosses’ father was one of the pioneer doctors assigned to Culion, Palawan. She lived there for a few years because the his father brought the whole family. She said that at that time, it was a practice that as soon as a baby is born of a leprose mother, they had to immediately separate it from the mother. She said it was heart wrenching watching the mothers when their babies were taken from them. Thank God for the advancement of science and medicine that improve the quality of life.

    Apr 10, 2007 | 4:01 pm

  10. john grost says:

    A medal was isssued in 2005 commemorating Culion’s 100th anniversary. I am searching for a speciment of that medal. Do you know where I could locate one – or who I should contact? Thank you. The article is very interesting and thoughtful.

    Jun 22, 2007 | 9:24 pm

  11. Marketman says:

    john, I am not sure who you would have to contact other than the local government offices… Perhaps a letter to the Mayor?

    Jun 23, 2007 | 6:55 am

  12. Flora Downing says:

    In response to Faye’s message, dated April 10, 2007,It’s true.. I am a daughter of a leprous parent (Mother and father) who was born in the year 1948, was immediately separated from my mother after she gave birth from Culion hospital and brought to the Nursery Homes for 6 years. To think about what the government, the Sisters of St. Paul and the Jesuits did to my parent and to myself , I would not be here in US. Right now, I am presently teaching in one of the Catholic school in Downtown NYC. I am already married for 14 years and still am looking forward to take a short vacation to my beloved Culion. Faye, I need to know that lady doctor who went to Culion and worked their for a short period of time. I maybe knew about her. Is she Dra. Palapox? Please let me know…you can send me your reply to: flora_lydia@yahoo.com

    Aug 2, 2007 | 10:20 pm

  13. Flora says:

    John, this is a follow up to your message …you are looking for a medal that was issued in 2005 commemorating Culion Centennial Anniversary last 2005… You know what!!! I didn’t hear about it but they have issued books about Culion. If you want to find more about it…I can refer you to Dr. Paul Evangelista, who is now retired doctor but he is now the newly elected vice mayor of Culion 2007.

    Aug 2, 2007 | 11:18 pm

  14. RH Parawan says:

    Hi guys!

    In my constant research (mostly on-line) about Culion since it has captured my imagination around 6 years ago now, I have always known that this is something I should be able to do something about…in whatever small way I could possibly have.

    Culion is a a testament to a part of our national history that most of the Filipinos today are ignorant about, adding more insult to the pain and lost all those poor souls that were removed from their families suffered just because of ignorance and discrimination against a sickness.

    It is in this regard that when I ventured into the independent film makiing industry, the first (and the closest to my heart) topic that ever crossed my mind when we’re asked by our mentor in the scriptwriting class to come up with a story-lines, is the story of Culion.

    I am currently in the pre-production stage of making this indie and my Culion story is a tapestry of emotions and angst about discrimination, then and now, foretold amidst the American’s fear of the unknown, inter-twined with our nation’s history and the current indifference of the Filipinos today with regards to our past that greatly affects our national identity as a people.

    I need all the help I could have in making this mission (to promote Culion, our history as a people, our plight as modern Filipinos and in making a world-class independent Filipino film, worth the time and effort of all movie-loving people) a reality. I hope that anybody who loves the Philippines, who has a story about Culion and would love to see it’s story brought to the big screen for the international audience, those who govern the Culion district and those who share the same vision and mission will be able to take part in this endeavor.

    I maybe comntacted thru my email: rhparawan@yahoo.com

    Thank you all and God bless!

    Sep 8, 2007 | 3:59 pm

  15. Boboy Bautista says:

    I love culion,even it is land of living dead,because i am born
    in this land..many years i am not visit in culion,but now i am so dis appointed,because they are call this land of living
    dead..please help culion..i am now here in KSA many years ago,if i going vacation the first place that i want to visit is culion..

    Apr 24, 2008 | 7:25 pm

  16. amparo says:

    i was simply net surfing for a family holiday when i came accross Aplaya Resort,Culion Island…got curious of Culion Island..though I never had a hint I would be deeply moved by what I will find out..the richness of Culion’s history is awesome! The fact that it USED TO BE called..land of the living dead..its mind blowing to think how they were extremely isolated to a point of having their own “money” securely controlled to circulate just within the island..yet,against all odds the labor of love of various people, professionals,and support from the government and other nations it gradually heal and came to life..until it was given its freedom to integrate and be part of the NORMAL society..

    below are more information from the culion municipality website which amaze me as well

    http://www.culion.net/municipality.html – Cached
    In 1991, Speaker Ramon Mitra and House Representative David Ponce de Leon introduced a House Bill for the creation of the Municipality of Culion. On February 12, 1992, Pres. Corazon Aquino signed Republic Act No. 7193 creating the Municipality of Culion in the Province of Palawan. It was ratified through a referendum held on September 12, 1992. On May 8, 1995, the first election of municipal officials of Culion was held resulting in the election of Mr. Hilarion Guia as its first duly elected mayor.

    Here then is Culion – an island and its inhabitants isolated by a government policy from the rest of the world, but now reintegrating into it. May Culion and the struggle of its people continue to bring inspiration and hope as Culion moves to a brighter tomorrow –

    This is beautiful!!! amazing!! what a vivid picture of extreme hopelessness… death… hope…. healing…and life!! All these sums up to its RICH and INSPIRINGLY beautiful history.

    Jun 22, 2008 | 6:35 am

  17. Jorge A. Estrada says:

    Im hurt why CULION called ” LAND OF THE LIVING DEAD” since the place is paradise.the place is very nice and beautiful, lots of places were to swim, suitable for relaxation,meditation and good for unwinding.I remember when i was a third year high school at ST.IGNATIOUS ACADEMY, i dont know the year,our team duing the INTRAMS “CYCLONE”.My classmates are dodong villarico ,Pabling Isabelo,Monching Rusello,Gargar bros. Felimon Orteza’nanding bantug,frank, kano,timbol,eusebio,lot,susan,henson and others.guys how are you there? Hope your enjoying the good life. Well, about me, I am a teacher presently teaching at the University of Perpetual Help Laguna.classmates promote our place.dont let others destroy culion. thanks.

    Sep 30, 2008 | 2:00 pm

  18. Marketman says:

    Jorge, I think it got the moniker as it was originally designed to be an island where folks with leprosy went to “await their eventual death.” But I also agree it is today one of the most beautiful areas of the country, and if you read my 15+ other posts on the area, you would glimpse a lot of its current beauty. One has to be cognizant of the history of a place to understand where it came from, and where it can go…

    Sep 30, 2008 | 2:21 pm

  19. redgumamela says:

    I just want to inform you that Culion is NO longer the Land of the Living Dead but Heaven. If people in Culion will just stand up and start to work without bickering with one another, Culion will be like other provinces in other places in the Philippines. Move on and have a new beginning…

    Nov 23, 2008 | 10:12 pm

  20. Marketman says:

    redgumamela, OBVIOUSLY it is no longer the Land of the Living Dead. If you bothered to read any of the 20+ posts I did on culion in this blog, the vast majority of them highly positive and attractive, instead of getting the hair on your neck up and all hot and bothered, then maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to comment. But you cannot ignore that it was once called that, and that is the history of the town. It is you who are so sure that the locals are bickering with one another…

    Nov 24, 2008 | 6:58 am

  21. Adrian says:

    I was reading an article about a Ms. Figge who recently completed a trans atlantic swim at the Island of Chacachacare in Trinadad. This too was a Leper colony until late in the 20th century. I then looked into other locations that served as colonies around the world such as the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium and then Culion. From places like these, the stories of how the human spirit rises above the most difficult circumstances can serve as an inspiration to anyone who takes interest.

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative post.

    Feb 8, 2009 | 10:07 pm

  22. danny says:

    there’s this ilocano doctor that once became chief of culion sanitarium, would you care if you know him… and if ever, a little bit story of him. thanks

    Feb 15, 2009 | 2:25 pm

  23. AksayaAsiong says:

    Greetings, mabuhay.

    I have read all your postings and answers about Culion. For me I am a man from the north, meaning the ilocos region. Let us accept whatever in our minds about this Culion island. It was instill in our minds that Culion was a land of the living dead, no matter what you say. Look, during my intermediate grades, they put it in the book, and to tell you frankly, I was just of those who read those horrible stories about the leper patients in culion. Therefore, you can not erase these memories in the minds of readers. For us, we want this culion island to stand up and be recognized, but I tell you it will take time, maybe not in this generation but later generation.

    And I tell you during my college days of accountancy I have met a classmate from culion, most of the people of culion but not all, will change their address once they set their own foot in the island of Luzon. However, correct me if I am wrong on this observation. I can not find anybody in the senate or congress whose address was in Culion.

    If we are sincere in promoting Culion as a beautiful island and move forward, something is possible, and if we are not sincere in promoting Culion island, something is not possible.

    Regards, Asiong

    Jun 5, 2009 | 9:41 pm


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