Pioneering leprosy scientist Thomas Rea dies at 86

Dr Thomas Herald Rea, a dermatologist who specialised in research and treatments for leprosy, died on Feb 7th. In news only just released to the LA Times, it was reported the doctor’s son, Steven, confirmed his father’s passing at the age of 86 years at his home in the San Gabriel mountains.

Rea performed groundbreaking medical work in the area of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, helping to improve the lives of sufferers and dispel the stigma long attached to the condition.

With colleague Dr. Robert Modlin, Rea was able to ascertain what role was played by the immune system in leprosy – a disease which famously causes skin lesions, growths and other superficial deformities. The research led the way to new drugs and treatments which effectively stopped the disease from being communicable.

No longer would sufferers be confined to colonies far from civilization, as had been the case throughout history. For centuries, because of their terrible appearance and the danger of infection, lepers were made social outcasts.

Dr Rea was born in 1929 in the city of Three Rivers, Michigan. After medical school and a residency in the hospital of Ann Arbor, he served in Korea with the US Medical Corps. After his return, Rea worked in the dermatology department within New York University. It was here that his interest in leprosy developed.

Dr. David Peng – of the University of Southern California – says the value of Rea’s work is hard to overstate. According to him, the breakthroughs he made were “huge”, leading to the disease becoming completely non-communicable and much more manageable for sufferers.

Dr Rea was famous for his straightforward and ‘normal’ manner with patients, willing to shake them by the hand without wearing gloves. A hardworking man, it was reported Rea continued to work on Hansen’s Disease at the clinic at USC in the months leading up to his death.