HomeWorld CoinsOffbeat Numismatics: The Leper Colony Coins of Colombia

Offbeat Numismatics: The Leper Colony Coins of Colombia

By Crystal GomezContent Writer, Gainesville Coins ……
Offbeat Numismatics: The Leper Colony Coins of Colombia

Between 1900 and 1930, Colombia made special coins for leprosy colonies. In this epoch, leprosy cases had reached an all-time high. While statistics may have been exaggerated about the actual number of people with leprosy, the country was still left with the problem of keeping its citizens free from the deadly disease and adjusting to the modern world. So, in an attempt to keep leprosy from spreading, the country started developing currency specifically for the colonies. While this phenomenon started in Columbia, it would spread to many other countries and regions around the world.

Background on the Sanatoriums and Leprosy

The sanatoriums, referred to as colonies, would normally surround a hospital for contagious diseases which were usually named after Saint Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. From this came the name for which the colonies are better known: “Lazaretos”. Early-20th-century Colombia had three leprosy colonies: Agua de Dios, Caño de Loro, and Contratación. Colombia, however, was not the only country to have specialized money for leper colonies. The Philippines, Japan, and Panama all issued this type of money in the early 20th century and at some point in time, it even existed in Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Korea, Nigeria, Thailand, and Venezuela. Leprosy, now known as Hansen’s disease, is treatable by a combination of antibiotics.

Colony Coins


The Colombian government was troubled by the rapid spread of leprosy so much that they began to make distinct currency for their three colonies. There were only four series of colony coins issued, but each was under four separate administrations. Leprosy coins were discontinued in Colombia after 1930.

The first issue of coinage started in March of 1901. Colombian president José Manuel Marroquín decreed that separate coinage was to be made for the leper colonies in the denominations of 2 ½, 5, 10, 20, and 50 centavos, or cents. This series bore the cross of Saint Lazarus on the reverse while its respective denomination and a laurel wreath appeared on the obverse. They were mainly made of bronze and bronze alloys.

The coins were minted with the following diameters:

2 ½ cents = 15 mm (about .59 in.)
5 cents = 18 mm (about .71 in.)
10 cents = 20.4 mm (about .8 in.)
20 cents = 23 mm (about .91 in.)
50 cents = 30.3 mm (about 1.19 in.)

While the exact mintage in any given series isn’t known, historians estimate that the total face value of this series is equal to about 20,000 Colombian pesos.

The second issue of coins was under President Rafael Reyes and was equivalent in face value to 30,000 pesos.

This series of coins would include 1, 5, and 10 pesos bearing a “PM” imprint for papel moneda, or paper money, to show the equivalency of the coins to Colombian notes. This series did not bear the cross of St. Lazarus, however. All of these colony coins had the same face value as Colombian notes and were considered legal tender within the colonies; however, it was strictly prohibited to use them anywhere outside the colonies as it was widely believed that leprosy was a highly communicable disease. Many people of this era believed that using the same money as leprosy victims could expose them to the illness. Reyes was so adamant about reducing the cases of leprosy that he even went so far as to order the incineration of all paper money in circulation, replacing them with newly printed notes.

The penultimate series of coins to circulate was during the administration of Marco Fidel Suárez. In 1918, cupro-nickel coins were minted in denominations of 1, 2, and 5 cents, followed by 10- and 50-cent denominations in 1919. These coins were no longer etched with the “PM” mark, but were still equal to regular Colombian currency and also featured the Lazarus cross. The total face value of these was estimated to be approximately 100,000 pesos.

The fourth and final issue of coins was authorized by president Miguel Abadía Méndez. The entire series was struck in only 50-cent denominations and was composed of bronze alloy, often identified as red copper. The coins featured the 50-cent denomination, omitted the Lazarus cross on the obverse, and read, “República de Colombia. Lazareto.” The coin acquired the nickname coscoja, roughly meaning “little thing” in colloquial Spanish.


1919 saw the rise of leper money in the Palo Seco Canal Zone of Panama. This money was covered by deposits of actual U.S. currency.

These aluminum coins featured “Palo Seco Canal Zone” as a legend on the obverse and showed the redeemable value on the reverse. The inscription of the coin’s face value varied from a numerical to an alphabetic format. The coin set consisted of 1-, 5-, 10-, 25-, and 50-cent denominations as well as 1-dollar denominations. The 1- and 5-cent denominations displayed a square hole in the center while the rest of the denominations were minted with round holes. While it’s unknown whether the holes were intentional or not, this feature made it easier for victims with appendage loss to handle the coins. All of the coins were approximately the same size as corresponding U.S. coins. It is estimated that 2,000 of the 1-cent denomination were minted and 1,000 of each of the remaining denominations were minted.

The coins were eventually withdrawn from circulation in 1952 and most were destroyed on November 28th, 1955 by the Maintenance Division in Balboa.

The Philippines

Culion Island in the Philippines was once known as the “Island of the Living Dead” because of its high population of Hansen’s disease victims, eventually becoming the largest leprosarium in the world. Located in the South China Sea, the colony was established between 1902 and 1904 by the Commission of Public Health. However, the first issuance of specialized money was not released until 1913. The private firm Frank & Co. in Manila was the first to make coins in ½, 1, 5, 10, 20 centavos, and 1-peso denominations specifically for the Culion Island sanatorium. Later issues were made by the Manila Mint after it opened in 1920. It is also believed that the ½- and 1-centavo coins from Frank & Co. were never actually circulated.

There were six dated issues in approximately 16 varieties of coins in the Culion Island colony. The 1920 issue of the Culion Island coins included 10-centavo, 20-centavo, and 1-peso denominations. These are believed to be slightly reduced in size from the 1913 collection. The 1920 coins were made of aluminum and contained no mint mark, as the Manila Mint didn’t see the need to add a mint mark.

The third issue, in 1922, only released 20-centavo and 1-peso denominations. These coins consisted of copper-nickel metal and bore a “PhM” counter-stamped mark referring to the Philippine Mint on the center of the reverse. The pesos from this collection come in two varieties. One identifying characteristic of the two varieties is the Caduceus*: The rare KM-17 Caduceus had a downward curvature to the wings and the more common KM-16 had straight wings.

*A caduceus is a winged staff with two snakes coiled around it. The symbol originally belongs to the Greek god Hermes. Its affiliation with the medical field is purely a misunderstanding but has become quite a prominent image despite this.

In the 1925 edition of coins, only pesos were minted. The location of the denomination of the coin moved from the center of the obverse to the bottom of the reverse. The obverse instead displayed the bust of Filipino hero Dr. José Rizal and, instead of the Caduceus, subsequently became the seal of the Philippine Health Service. This was the last peso to be struck for the Culion Island Colony.

The fifth issue, minted in 1927, only included 1 and 5 centavos. These coins were similar to the 1925 pesos. The 1-centavo, however, displayed the bust of lawyer and statesman Apolinario Mabini. According to a set list description by the NGC Collectors Society, there were 3 die varieties and 2 planchet thicknesses in existence for the 1 centavo coin.

In the last issue of 1930, only 1 and 10 centavos were minted. The legend on both the 1- and 10-centavo coins changed to “Leper Colonies and Stations” in order to include the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila where the coins were adopted in 1926. The 1 centavo also included the bust of Dr. José Rizal on its obverse while the 10-centavo coin featured the bust of Andres Bonifacio on its obverse.


The Japanese sen was minted especially for leprosariums between 1912 and 1948 and was distributed to three major sanatoriums. While numbers of Hansen’s victims have diminished and the use of separate coinage for these populations has stopped, these hospitals are still in operation today.

Ōshima Seishōen Sanatorium

Opened in 1909, the Ōshima Seishōen sanatorium in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture used sen that was brass and round. They featured then-Emperor Taishō’s name in Japanese on the obverse and the Japanese characters for “inspection” on the reverse. This coin is set apart from the two other sanatorium coins as being the only bifacial coin of the three.

The Standard Catalog of World Coins lists the Ōshima Seishōen coin as a rare piece.

Tama Zenshōen Sanatorium

Also opened in 1909, the still-operating Higashimurayama, Tokyo sanatorium sen was introduced between 1926 and 1928. This sen is made of lacquered brass and was oval-shaped instead of the traditional round-shaped. The coin included a round hole in the center, setting it apart from the Ōshima Seishōen coin. The obverse indicates the denomination and is engraved with sun rays along the rim. This was a uniface coin, meaning the reverse was left blank.

Nagashima Aiseien Sanatorium

Located in Setouchi, Okayama, this sanatorium was established in 1930 because of the inefficiency of the two earlier sanatoriums. These coins began their circulation in the hospital between 1931 to 1948. Also made of lacquered brass and oval-shaped, this coin showcased the badge of Nagashima Aiseien Sanatorium adjoined with flowers. The denomination was placed below the circular hole in the center and the reverse was left blank.

This edition contains a second set of coins. The second set is made of lacquered aluminum and is distinct in its round shape. Being a unifacial coin, only the obverse has Japanese inscriptions. The Nagashima badge is pictured above the circular hole, and to the left of the hole it reads “Uchi Tsūyō-hyō,” and “Nagashima Aiseien,” to the right in Japanese characters.

This collection of Japanese coins is so rare, that even finding a decent picture is difficult. However, some of the 2-sen coins that were distributed are less rare and have good quality pictures in existence.

While the stigma attached to leper colony coins may be a deterrent to some, it’s clear that this special currency is of global historical significance and thus should appeal to collectors.

Gainesville Coins sells a wide range of precious metals bullion and certified coins. The company is 5-star rated by the National Inflation Association (NIA), the highest rated Gold and Silver Seller by the NIA. Gainesville Coins also buys precious metals investments.

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