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Copy of a 1600s wooden leper clapper, England

Those with leprosy, known as ‘lepers’, were made to wear distinctive clothing and carry a bell or a clapper to warn people of their approach. The clappers may also have been used to attract attention for donations. Lepers were social outcasts. People were so afraid of catching the disease because of its effects. It causes lumps on the skin and attacks the nervous system. In the worst cases it can cause disfigurement to the face, hands and feet, and muscle paralysis. This example is a copy of an original from the 1600s, which came from St Nicholas leper hospital in Kent, England. Henry Wellcome did his utmost to acquire objects for his collection. He was not always successful. Undeterred, he would seek permission to have copies made of those objects he could not acquire. It is shown here with a simliar example (A6e35021).

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Glossary: leprosy

A chronic disease that affects the skin, mucous membrane and nerves. It is now confined mainly to the tropics and is transmitted by direct contact. Previously a widely feared disease, leprosy is not highly infectious.

Glossary: leper clapper

A type of rattle that people with leprosy were forced to carry in the 1600s. The noise made by the clapper warned people to avoid the infected person.