Historical essay
Anacleto Palabay in the Metropole: Public Health, Migration, and Deportation in the Case of a Filipino Leprosy Patient

Anacleto Palabay in the Metropole: Public Health, Migration, and Deportation in the Case of a Filipino Leprosy Patient

Joshua G. Acosta

Anacleto Palabay, a young Filipino domestic worker in Washington, D.C., was intent on returning home to the Philippines. His soon-to-be wife was waiting there for him and he was eager to build a life with her after making money while living in the United States. Palabay’s story was a common one among Filipina/o migrants to the U.S. in the early twentieth century, with one glaring difference: he had leprosy. Beginning in January 1911, local newspapers reported the story of Anacleto Palabay who was being quarantined in the nation’s capital. He was admitted at the Naval Medical School Hospital after health authorities declared that he was afflicted with the disease.[1] Over the next nine months, Palabay was placed under isolation in a house in the Anacostia neighborhood. The medical case of Anacleto Palabay proved to be a conundrum for U.S. officials that contextualizes how race, immigration, and disease were imbricated in the politics of care.

The debate centered around the question of Palabay’s care, his civil status, and the circumstances that surrounded his eventual deportation. As was the case for all Filipinas/os living in the U.S., he was not recognized as a citizen and was instead regarded as a U.S. national, an ambiguous designation that afforded him neither civil inclusion nor positioned him as a foreigner.[2] Many young Filipino men were actively targeted by U.S. recruiters looking for agri-business workers, who were in particularly high demand to shore up the supply of cheap labor (which had been sharply curtailed after the exclusion of most East Asian immigration) and to act as personnel to serve in subordinate roles within the armed forces as domestic service workers. His experience was inextricably linked to the colonial enterprise of trans-Pacific labor migration, bringing Filipinas/os – particularly ethnic Ilokanos from the northern island (Luzon), as well as those from the central regions (Visayas) of the archipelago – as recruits for agricultural, medical, and military labor.[3] As an Ilokano in his early twenties, Palabay was thus an ideal candidate for labor migration recruitment circuits between the Philippines and the U.S.

Although some immigrants were labeled as “likely to become a public charge” (LPC), a designation for newly arrived immigrants who might pose social, public health, or financial burdens to the state, Palabay’s medical case demonstrated a rupture in the immigration policy in two ways: First, his status as a U.S. national and a desired laborer enabled him entry. Secondly, while he was eventually found to be infected with leprosy, this discovery was made nearly a year after his arrival into the country.

Black and white photographic portrait of a white man wearing glasses and a suit.
Dr. William C. Woodward, c. 1910-1915. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

According to Dr. William Creighton Woodward, who oversaw the case as a health officer of the District of Columbia, Palabay likely contracted the disease upon his arrival in San Francisco around February 16, 1910, although he was only diagnosed after moving to Washington, D.C., nearly a year later. The Washington Post noted that Palabay “had been employed as a domestic in the residence of a naval officer here, and is believed to have been suffering the disease for about two months.”[4] Throughout the late 19th century, Chinese and other trans-Pacific migrants were deployed as scapegoats by U.S. officials to explain outbreaks of smallpox and syphilis, and Palabay’s leprosy diagnosis was treated similarly by the press.

Local Washington newspapers began to report the diagnosis, sensationalizing the prospect that the “taint of leprosy” brought about by a “Malay” (a racial term applied to Austronesian peoples) might be a cause for alarm in the nation’s capital.[5] After exhibiting an abnormal growth on his face, Palabay’s employer had him examined by physicians at the naval hospital, where he was eventually admitted under medical observation. Amidst the backdrop associating disease with Asian immigrants, Woodward nevertheless reassured the public that Palabay’s condition exhibited a mild case, noting that his only blemish was an enlarged red spot that had appeared above his right eye.[6]

Most of the coverage of Palabay discussed his uncertain future as a Filipino U.S. national under medical quarantine, but some articles offer glimpses of Palabay’s inner life. Despite being brought to the metropole as a valet for a military officer, he was nevertheless without formal civil rights nor any financial affordance for care. Moreover, due to his diagnosis, Palabay was no longer employed and left on his own as health authorities scrambled to determine his fate. In an interview with The Washington Post, he noted that he had worked for the naval officer in the U.S. to earn enough money to purchase a plot of land in the Philippines where he could live with his soon-to-be wife, whom he claimed was waiting for him back home. After nearly a month in isolation, the newspaper reported that Palabay was “perfectly willing to remain here” until he was cured.[7]

Palabay’s treatment contrasted with the 1909 case of John Ruskin Early, a white U.S. Army veteran who was reported to have contracted leprosy while fighting Filipina/o guerillas in the Philippine-American War.[8] Early gained fame for his frequent escapes from leprosariums, defaming how treatment likened leprosy patients as prisoners. Nevertheless, he was credited for having an influential role in advocating for federal reforms in leprosy care, having “done more to improve the plight of persons with leprosy in the United States than did anyone else of his time.”[9] In fact, Early’s access to medical care was due in large part to his wife, Lottie, who wrote to various specialists to get her husband’s diagnosis clarified so that he could be released. She even petitioned Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft along with various skin specialists in New York to determine the severity of his condition. What was afforded to Early was not accessible to Palabay.

In addition to the differences between Palabay and Early’s circumstances, budget appropriations also indicated another layer of disparity. During Palabay’s quarantine, District of Columbia officials bemoaned the financial burden to provide adequate surveillance and palliative services even while Early’s quarantine had cost the District $3000, far more than in Palabay’s case. Writing to Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh, District of Columbia Commissioner John A. Johnston explained his appeal for an extra $1000 of federal funding for the health office:

This increase of the above amount is made necessary at this time because of the following unusual circumstances, which could not be anticipated, namely there coming into the jurisdiction of the health department of the District of Columbia, on the 24th day of January, 1911, a case of leprosy in the person of one Antonio [sic] Palabay, necessitating a daily expense of $6 from that day to date for the maintenance of guards to prevent violation of local and interstate quarantine regulations.[10]

In contrast to Palabay, Early was afforded a pension from the federal government for his medical disability while serving in the U.S. Army and to compensate for his lack of employment.[11] Yet notably, reports of expenditures to treat the Filipino patient were given considerable scrutiny despite the reported cost totaling $1400.[12]

To address both the quandary of Palabay’s isolation and the purported financial strain that they cited as draining the District’s resources, Woodward and other District officials devised an expedient solution to these issues at once: Palabay needed to be deported back to the Philippines. Such a solution required engagement with various levels of government, coordinating with the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service and Philippine representatives. He enlisted the support of Philippine Resident Commissioner Manuel Quezon, who was said to have been “moved by pity for the young Filipino stricken with a dread disease and wearing out his existence 10,000 miles away from kith and kin.”[13] Without a definitive cure, many afflicted leprosy patients suffered greatly from social stigmatization and being separated from their families indefinitely. After securing approval from the Public Health and Marine Hospital Service, Palabay was cleared to be deported back to the Philippines.

By September of 1911, Palabay arrived in Seattle to board the U.S. Army Transport Dixon destined for Manila. To maintain adherence to federal quarantine regulations, he was arranged to be transported in a specially made box car rather than in the typical passenger coach seats. Two years later, Dr. Eliodoro Mercado, a Filipino doctor and resident physician at San Lazaro Hospital, a central facility for leprosy treatment in Manila, later declared that Palabay was disease-free.[14]

By zooming into the story of one man, Anacleto Palabay’s case reveals the complex colonial relationship between the U.S. with the Philippines. While Filipinas/os were actively recruited to fulfill labor demands in the metropole, their lives were simultaneously disposable as evidenced through the disparate treatment between Palabay and Early. Leprosy care proved to be a costly endeavor for District of Columbia officials, prompting Palabay’s eventual deportation. It further shows the instabilities of colonialism by highlighting the equivocal and shifting relations that shaped U.S. rule of the Philippines. As a U.S. national, Palabay could enter the country and work. Yet only when he proved to be a liability did U.S. public health officials expediently place the burden of responsibility on the Philippines. As U.S. colonialism spurred Filipinas/os to enter into the metropole, their lives were placed under ambiguous and often precarious positions, particularly when they were posed as politically, financially, or medically burdensome.


  1. “Is Declared a Leper: Filipino Youth Patient at Naval Medical School Hospital,” The Washington Post, January 25, 1911.
  2. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 100.
  3. Rick Baldoz, The Third Asiatic Invasion: Empire and Migration in Filipino America, 1898-1946 (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 45-46. For the history of Filipino nurse migration, see Catherine Ceniza Choy, Empire of Care: Nursing and Migration in Filipino American History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).
  4. “Is Declared a Leper: Filipino Youth Patient at Naval Medical School Hospital,” The Washington Post, January 25, 1911.
  5. “Taint of Leprosy: Suspect Under Investigation at Naval Medical Hospital, CASE SAID TO BE GENUINE, Filipino Servant Believed to Have Developed the Disease Two Months Ago, Evening Star, January 24, 1911.
  6. For a history of racializing diseases among trans-Pacific immigrants in the U.S., see Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  7. “Hope Inspires Leper: District’s Filipino Ward Expects Freedom Soon,” The Washington Post, February 19, 1911.
  8. Philip A. Kalisch, “The Strange Case of John Early: A Study of the Stigma of Leprosy,” International Journal of Leprosy 40, no. 5 (1972): 291.
  9. Ibid., 299-300. Early testified to the U.S. Senate concerning the treatment and quarantine of leprosy patients.
  10. “Maintenance of Contagious-Disease Service: Letter from the Secretary of the Treasury, Copy of Communication from the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, Submitting a Draft of Joint Resolution Amending Appropriation Act for the District of Columbia for Current Fiscal Year in Regard to Contagious Diseases,” House Documents, Vol. 9 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911), 67.
  11. Kalisch, 295-297.
  12. “Palabay in Seattle: District’s Leper Reaches End of Railway Trip, WILL SAIL ON TRANSPORT, Cabin Built For Him on the Steamer’s Deck, WILL BE TAKEN TO MANILA, Boxcar in Which He Crossed the Continent Will Be Burned,” The Evening Star, September 14, 1911, 1.
  13. “Dr. Woodward and Quezon Will Help Leper Reach Home: Filipino Youth to Receive Aid of Delegate and Health Officer,” The Washington Times, May 8, 1911, 3.
  14. El Ramo de Sanidad en Filipinas: El Informe de Comite Especial Investigador Sobre los Asuntos de la Sanidad y sus Dependencias, Presentado al Presidente de la Asamblea en 6 de Enero de 1914 (Manila: Bureau of Printing, 1914), 68. Dr. Mercado was also responsible for a 1909 therapeutic to ameliorate the effects of leprosy with his hypodermic injection method using chaulmoogra oil.

Featured image caption: U.S. Naval Medical School, Washington, D.C. Photographed by Waldon Fawcett, circa 1908. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

Joshua G. Acosta is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on the history of the U.S. colonization of the Philippines and the Filipino American diaspora. His research co-locates the history of medicine and its relationship to global processes of imperialism, migration, racialization, and humanitarianism.

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