Supporting Historical Preservation Activities at Portugal’s Former National Leprosarium Rovisco Pais

Activity area:

Rovisco Pais was the only national leprosarium in Portugal’s history. It was established in 1947 for the study, treatment and eradication of leprosy. In 1996, due to the decrease in the number of patients, it officially closed its doors as a sanatorium but allowed existing residents to continue living there. The complex took on a new role as a medical rehabilitation center for Portugal’s Central Region, while retaining the functions of a leprosy hospital.

Built on 144 hectares, the hospital colony’s 18 buildings were set amid beautiful gardens, agricultural land and wetlands. The facilities included five family wards. Over the years, first as a leprosarium and then as medical rehabilitation center, Rovisco Pais has served more than 3,000 leprosy inpatients and diagnosed and treated thousands of outpatients. Today, however, only two elderly residents remain from its days as a hospital colony.

One of the original buildings at Rovisco Pais

Rovisco Pais’s archives contain the largest collection of leprosy-related materials in Portugal. In addition to office records, pathology reports, cytology reports and social historical materials, historically important structures and artifacts remain including former sanatorium buildings, the chapel, everyday items, furniture, medical devices and more.

Since 2017, Sasakawa Health Foundation has been supporting historical preservation activities at the request of Rovisco Pais. In the first phase through 2018, we supported activities to preserve and catalog documents and photographs. Photographs were made available online on the photo-sharing platform Flickr (Flickr – Hospital Colónia Rovisco Pais).

In the second phase from 2019 through 2021, our support is focused on three tasks: 1) opening a museum in the chapel to display the historical artifacts that have been preserved and creating display panels that tell the history of Rovisco Pais; 2) organizing traveling exhibitions using display panels; and 3) building a website about the history of leprosy in Portugal.

In fiscal 2020 (April 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021), the second year of phase-two support, all of these activities made steady progress, as below:

(1)Opening a museum

From across the former hospital colony complex, around 400 items were selected, cleaned, preserved and cataloged, with a view to displaying them in a museum being opened in the chapel. Exhibition panels were produced on the following six themes: clinical, social, recreational, religious, scientific research and community activities.

Preparing items to be displayed at the museum (1)

Preparing items to be displayed at the museum (2)


Exterior of the chapel, home of the museum

Chapel interior

(2)Holding traveling exhibitions

Plans for traveling exhibitions using the display panels disrupted in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but to date three such exhibitions have been held or are currently taking place as of time of writing:

Arts and Entertainment Center of Figueira da Foz (April 15 – May 30, 2021)

Cultural Center of the Higher Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra (June 1 – July 31, 2021)

Cantanhede Municipality Library (August 2 – September 20, 2021)

Before these exhibitions were held, the panels were first displayed in the outpatient pavilion of the medical rehabilitation center at Rovisco Pais. They proved popular and were seen by around 250 people, and there have been requests for the contents be published in book form.

Panels from the exhibition at the outpatient clinic (1)

Panels from the exhibition at the outpatient clinic (2)

(3)Constructing a history website

The Hansen Stories website provides comprehensive information on the history of leprosy in Portugal, with a focus on testimonies from persons affected by the disease and from healthcare professionals. To date, 24 accounts have been uploaded.

In FY2021, the final year of our phase two support, the aim is to promote activities to preserve and pass on this history, such as by enhancing the website and holding more traveling exhibitions. The panels are available for loan to educational institutions, cultural facilities, medical institutions and the like. Details are available at the Hansen Stories website and Facebook page.