Leprosy, one of the oldest recorded diseases, still afflicts nearly one million people around the world. Perhaps more surprising, there are several thousand infected people in New York City. But with the help of Dr. Victor Heiser, who died more than 30 years ago, there is new hope for leprosy’s victims.
Heiser, at age 16 the sole family survivor of the Johnstown flood of 1889, was no stranger to challenges: He worked as a plumber and carpenter, and then put himself through college and medical school. But after graduating from medical school, he wanted to prevent disease rather than simply treat it. For three decades he did just that, in Italy, Egypt, the Philippines, Ceylon, Java, Ethiopia, Thailand, and Japan. He had some spectacular successes in the Philippines, where his efforts helped attract young women into nursing at a time of desperate shortage, improved sanitation, and virtually eradicated smallpox. But he was appalled by the way lepers were treated and frustrated by the failure to find a way to prevent and treat leprosy.
Dr. Heiser retired from medical globetrotting at the age of 61. He wrote a bestselling memoir and embarked on a new career in industrial medicine. And, now that he had a home base, he got married.
He died in 1972 at the age of 100, and through his will established the Heiser Gift in The New York Community Trust to research the prevention and control of leprosy. It is one of only two funds in the world created to fight the disease.
The first grants awarded were for fellowships to scientists early in their careers to research leprosy, and grants to laboratories studying the disease. For 15 years, the fund helped more than 200 young scientists develop their careers and study leprosy.
But Heiser also instructed The Trust to make grants “for purposes, closely allied to, or of the general character of [leprosy].” This broader purpose allowed The Trust to begin giving grants to researchers studying tuberculosis (TB) in 1991. Leprosy and TB are caused by closely related bacteria that share common characteristics and stimulate similar immune responses in humans. Scientists believe that a vaccine for tuberculosis will prove useful against leprosy as well. At the time, TB had reemerged around the world as a serious health problem—8 million new cases and 3 million deaths were reported each year. We had the opportunity to help fight a growing problem and continue to learn about other ways to fight leprosy.
The fund continued to support direct research into leprosy, funding tests of new treatments for the disease through the World Health Organization. In 1995, we helped fund a five-year project to map the leprosy genome, which resulted in an increased understanding of the bacterium and pointed to new ways to identify and fight it. This knowledge prompted our support of another large-scale leprosy project: developing the first diagnostic test for the disease. Leprosy incubates in people for up to a decade before symptoms are noticed, by which time serious irreparable damage has been done to the victim’s nervous system. Creating a test to identify it early on will save lives and help stop its spread.
For more than 30 years, The Trust has carried on Dr. Heiser’s passion for medical research and to find a cure for leprosy. New advancements in science are now available to researchers. And his goal is ever closer to being reached.