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Leading Leprologist Delivers Hanks Lecture



If ever a disease met its match in stubbornness, leprosy has in Huan-Ying Li.

A charismatic 92-year old physician-scientist who in 1952 earned her MPH from Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and now is based at the Beijing Tropical Medicine Research Institute, Li described her enduring devotion to leprosy research and treatment for the fifth John H. Hanks Lecture delivered Friday, May 11 in Becton Dickinson Hall. Appropriately enough, Hanks’ lifelong goal was to culture the leprosy bacillus and in so doing, he pioneered tissue culture techniques.

Li, a member of the WHO Leprosy Technical Advisory Group from 1991 to 2000, used the opportunity not only to reminisce about the highlights of her career as a leading leprologist but also to spread the gospel of early detection—the focus of her current work—and extol the virtues of multidrug therapy (MDT), a highly effective cure that she introduced to China in the early 1980s. 

“Never give up!,” the salt-and-pepper-haired researcher exhorted her audience. “I’m still very enduring. I’m experimenting with myself: See how long you can live, and how long you can work with leprosy.”

The ancient disease that she has worked so long and hard to eradicate still disables and cripples about 6,000 people in China, mostly in remote, rural villages where those afflicted by the characteristic lesions still are stigmatized and often considered possessed. Li’s slides depicting the recorded history of leprosy included photos of a bamboo book dated 206 BC in which it was written that prisoners suffering from leprosy were to be thrown in the river or burned.

Li showed how science has helped to stem the cruel punishments that humanity has meted out on lepers through the ages, with the most recent being leprosy control through isolation. 

“No more is segregation necessary,” she said victoriously, showing slides from a field study of MDT, the results of which were published in the International Journal of Leprosy. “This is proof that MDT works very effectively!”