A major institution of the mission, the Leprosarium at Virgwi, near Garkida, was first called a “leper colony.” It was founded in 1929 by American Brethren physician R.L. Robertson, in cooperation with American Leprosy Missions. Dr. Robertson began work at Virgwi on Sept. 7, 1929, but died just two years later of yellow fever in Lagos, in 1931.
However, the work continued and the institution grew and gained international recognition for its work in the treatment of leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease.
It was transferred to the government and was named Virgwi Adamawa Provincial Leprosarium. The first patient to be admitted there was Lalakanda Wula Musa from the Kanakuru people, the second was Nzika Nkirta of the Bura people.
Key leaders at the Leprosarium have included:
- Mission doctor Harold A. Bosler who took over medical direction after the death of Dr. Robertson. He was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for the excellence of his work.
- Mission doctor Roy. E. Pfaltzgraff followed Dr. Bosler, and served for decades at the Leprosarium until his retirement. He became an international figure in the field of leprosy research and treatment, developing ways to help patients who lost limbs or lost the use of arms and legs. He also began the practice of promoting Nigerian medical staff and training officers.
- Mr. B.U. Ekanem, who was part of the beginning of the institution and served as a clerk there until his resignation in 1963.
- Ishaku B. Bdliya of the Bura people who was a training officer and later was ordained as a minister.
- A series of patients appointed to be responsible for discipline for the welfare of the people of the settlement, beginning with Malam Yola.
- Many other mission nurses and doctors who served at the Leprosarium over the years.
A church congregation grew out of the Leprosarium’s work. The 50th anniversary yearbook of Lardin Gabas notes that from 1929-72, 8,550 people from 150 different tribes received treatment at the Leprosarium at Virgwi.
Although a number of Church of the Brethren mission workers died while serving in Nigeria, beginning with Ruth Kulp and her newborn baby in 1924, the death of Laura Wine sparked international attention as the first identified victim of Lassa Fever.
Laura Wine arrived in Nigeria in 1964. Age 65, she was retired from a nursing career in Chicago and was ready to put her skills to work for the mission. She became head of obstetrics at the Lassa Mission Hospital.
In January 1969, she came down with a mysterious disease that did not respond to treatment. Dr. John Hamer, then the sole physician in Lassa, and his wife Esther, decided to transport her to the better equipped Bingham Memorial Hospital in the city of Jos, a hospital of the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM). Travel was complicated by the civil war raging in Nigeria, and civilian air travel was restricted. However, other Brethren mission workers helped make the arrangements to have her flown the 500 miles to Jos, accompanied by the Hamers–but to no avail. All treatment proved futile and she died the next day.
The mystery disease spread to two SIM nurses who helped care for Laura. Charlotte Shaw died of the disease. Penny Pinneo, who also contracted the fever, was flown to New York along with samples of tissue and fluids from the previous victims, and survived after receiving care at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center for more than nine weeks. A specialist in tropical diseases at Columbia-Presbyterian worked with a team from the Yale Arbovirus Lab and Yale Public Health and Epidemiology Department to identify the deadly virus. They developed an anti-serum using antibodies from Penny Pinneo, but ironically the first human being whose life was saved by it was a lab researcher who caught Lassa while working to analyze the virus. Another researcher died of the disease, after which Yale destroyed its samples and stopped its research on the virus. Lassa Fever then became the first assignment of a brand new lab at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Late in 1969, Lassa Fever again broke out in the Nigerian community around Jos, killing a number of people, although others survived the outbreak. Patients again were brought to the SIM hospital, and again hospital staff were infected and died including Dr. Jeanette Trout, a mission doctor. Then the outbreak died down and Lassa Fever seemed to vanish from the area.
In following months and years, medical researchers continued to search out the virus in Nigeria and other African nations. Penny Pinneo as a survivor could help provide anti-serum, and traveled with virologists as they visited places where outbreaks might have happened or were in progress. Eventually a researcher working out of Atlanta identified the carrier as a particular species of rat.
The story of Lassa Fever became the subject of Fever! The Hunt for a New Killer Virus by John G. Fuller, published in 1974 by Reader’s Digest Press, and published in digest version in the March 1974 Reader’s Digest magazine. A television documentary also was made about Lassa Fever, with much of the filming done at Lassa and Jos.
The July 1974 issue of the Church of the Brethren Messenger magazine featured a story by Dr. John and Esther Hamer reviewing Fever! and telling their own story of helping to care for their friend and co-worker Laura Wine.
The Hamers wrote about Laura Wine’s broad motherly face, sprightly walk, jovial spirit. They also wrote with appreciation of all the Brethren–American and Nigerian–who did everything they could in the midst of the crisis. Laura was buried in Garkida. The Hamers described the funeral: “The Garkida church packed with both Nigerians and missionaries grieving the sudden loss of a Christian disciple, friend, and co-worker… The burial of Laura on a hillside in the Garkida mission compound near the graves of several other missionaries and children who had previously died while ministering the love of God.
“There may have been other patients–nationals of West Africa, explorers, missionaries, visitors–with this disease before Laura Wine, but she was the first patient identified with it…. Laura Wine’s giving of her life which she was totally prepared to do for the sake of Christian service and medical advancement was a gift of love.”