Exhibition: the discovery of the leprosy bacteria 150 years

In 1873, the Bergen doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen identified the leprosy bacteria. This represented an international breakthrough, not only for leprosy research, but in medicine in general.

A groundbreaking discovery

An evening in February 1873 at Lungegaard hospital at Kalfaret in Bergen, the young doctor Gerhard Armauer Hansen was sitting in front of his microscope. Under the lens he had tissue samples from a patient, and now he saw something no one had seen before: moving “rod-shaped bodies”. He had observed mycobacterium leprae, the infectious agent that could confirm the theory that leprosy was an infectious disease, and not hereditary as one previously thought.

Famous in the world, but forgotten in Bergen?

The discovery of the leprosy bacteria and Hansen’s work to find measures to limit the spread of the disease gave him international recognition. He was praised by many during his lifetime, and he is still one of the most famous Norwegians of all time. In many languages, leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease. Here in Bergen, Hansen’s hometown, a street and a hospital building are named after him, but surprisingly few Bergens know who he is.

A person shrouded in myth

The story of Hansen’s life and his discovery is connected to a number of rumors: Hansen is said to have started his job at one of Bergen’s leprosy hospitals by directly contradicting his boss; a foreign doctor allegedly tried to steal credit for the discovery; an experiment on a patient sparked a fierce debate about ethics in our time. How well do these stories stand up to closer scrutiny? Is the truth perhaps more nuanced?

Neither cultivate nor judge

Hansen has undoubtedly made Norway’s most important contribution to medical research, but how could this happen here in Bergen, and was this breakthrough only positive? The exhibition will present several prerequisites for and challenges in Hansen’s work, and thematizes, among other things, fear of infection, isolation and ethical dilemmas. Hansen cannot be unilaterally praised for his achievements or condemned for his choices. Can his work contribute to insight and reflection 150 years later?