Thomas Rea dies at 86; dermatologist paved the way for treatment of leprosy


Dr. Thomas Rea, a dermatologist whose discoveries led to treatments that allowed patients with Hansen’s disease — leprosy — to live without stigma, has died. He was 86.

Rea died in his home in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains on Feb. 7 after a battle with cancer, said his son Steven Rea.

Rea and his colleague Dr. Robert Modlin nailed down the precise role played by the immune system in Hansen’s disease symptoms such as skin lesions and growths. The immune connection had long been suspected but never previously explained.


Their work opened the door to new treatments that rendered the disease non-contagious and allowed patients to live normal lives.

“It was huge,” said Dr. David Peng, head of the dermatology department at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.

The disease went from largely untreatable to “entirely controllable,” he said. No more would sufferers be exiled to colonies, as they had been since biblical times.

Rea was also an early champion of the drug thalidomide in treating a complication of leprosy. The drug had been banned for its role in causing birth defects, but Rea successfully lobbied the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to allow its limited use.

Rea was head of the USC’s dermatology division between 1981 and 1996, and kept working at the Hansen’s disease clinic at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in Boyle Heights until a few months before he died.


The clinic is the largest of its kind in the nation and tracks several hundred cases of Hansen’s disease. It was renamed for Rea last year.

For years, Rea worked with patients who suffered from leprosy’s stigma and felt they had to avoid human contact. “He’d come straight in and shake their hands, no gloves on, and it would empower them to realize that they could get better,” Peng said.

He wanted them to live normally and did much of his work outside the laboratory, helping patients learn to function day-to-day.

Rea’s efforts changed the narrative for leprosy patients. Once, the disease forced them to hide. Now, they can hide their disease and live among people.

Thomas Herald Rea was born in 1929 in Three Rivers, Michigan. He went to Oberlin College and to medical school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He completed his dermatology residency at University Hospital in Ann Arbor.

He worked in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army in Korea and in the dermatology department at New York University, where he first began treating Hansen’s disease patients, and moved to Los Angeles in 1970.

His son said he loved books, was a fan of William Robertson Davies and Kurt Vonnegut, and could recall everything he’d learned in school, even the lineage of the British royal family.

He collected figurines of armadillos — the symbol of leprosy because they can carry the disease — and also classical music on vinyl and Japanese art. He filled his home with Japanese prints, which he began collecting when he visited Japan on leave from the Army in Korea.

Steven Rea is a movie critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He said his interest in movies comes in part from his father, who was a movie buff.

In addition to his son, Rea is survived by his wife of 51 years, Mary, another son, Andrew, and four grandchildren.

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