Leprosy treatment pioneer Dr Thomas Herald Rea dies of cancer at 86

07 Mar 2016


Dr Thomas Herald Rea, a dermatologist and a pioneer of leprosy treatment, died at the age of 86 in his home in California's San Gabriel Mountains on 7 February.

The news, which was only recently confirmed  by Rea's son Steven was reported by the Los Angeles Times.

That the once-stigmatised and debilitating Hansen's disease, or leprosy, is now treatable, was large due to Rea's research.

Doctors had long suspected the existence of a link between the immune system and the painful lesions associated with leprosy, however, it was Rea who first proved it.

His discoveries led to treatments that rendered the disease non-contagious and allowed leprosy patients, once condemned to live in hiding, to live normal, pain-free lives.

Rea was born in 1929 in Three Rivers, Michigan, and earned his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College before attending medical school at the University of Michigan. He completed residency at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Rea and served in the Medical Corps of the US Army in Korea.

It was while serving in New York University's dermatology department that Rea first started treating leprosy patients.

In 1970, Rea moved to Los Angeles and from 1981 to 1996, he worked at the L.A. Country-USC Medical Center. The 1990s saw Rea lobby the US Food and Drug Administration to lift the ban on the leprosy-management drug thalidomide, arguing that it could be used safely if closely and carefully managed.

According to Rea's son Steven, his father died in his home in San Gabriel Mountains in California after battling with cancer.

Rea came to be known for his work with colleague Dr Robert Modlin in the discovery of the exact role of the immune system in the development of skin lesions due to leprosy.

For a long time, scientists believed that the immune system was relate to leprosy's signs and symptoms. However, no one was able to precisely explain that before.

Patients who were once carried the heavy stigma of their disease and had to hide themselves in shame, were given the chance to live their lives normally again, thanks to Rea. They did not have to be deported to secluded places just like in the ancient biblical eras.

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