Father of Leprosy treatment Dr. Thomas Herald Rea died on Monday, Feb. 7 at the age of 86.

His son Steven says his father died in his home in San Gabriel Mountains in California after battling with cancer.

Rea's Work

Rea is well-known for his work with colleague Dr. Robert Modlin of discovering the exact role of the immune system in the development of skin lesions due to leprosy or Hansen's disease.

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

"It was huge," says Dr. David Peng from the University of Southern California. He explains that leprosy has gone from vastly incurable to completely controllable. This is because Rea and Modlin's work paved the way for new treatment and management techniques, which made the disease non-communicable.

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

Aside from the breakthrough discovery, Rea was also an early advocate of a drug called thalidomide, which can be used to treat a complication of leprosy. Although the drug was prohibited because of its link to the development of birth defects, Rea was able to successfully urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to permit its limited administration.

Rea worked more outside of the laboratory to ensure that leprosy patients were at their tiptop shape every time. He interacted with them no differently from other people. He would shake their hands without gloves and inspire them to realize that their health could improve.

Work Timeline

Rea was born in 1929 in Three Rivers, Michigan. He attended Oberlin College and later pursued medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He spent and finished his dermatology residency at the University Hospital in Ann Arbor.

He was sent to Korea as a part of the U.S. Medical Corps. He also worked at New York University, where he pioneered treating patients with leprosy. In 1970, he moved to Los Angeles.

Rea led the USC's department of dermatology from 1981 to 1996. Even a few months before his death, Rea still continued to work at the Hansen's disease clinic of USC Medical Center.

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