Isolation and segregation in the early years of the Lazaret
“Sir, I won’t be locked up like a criminal. Why are we being treated in such a manner? What crime are we supposed to be guilty of?” - letter to Home Secretary from patient Rose Donovan 1909
The State of Queensland introduced the Leprosy Act of 1892, which allowed for the forced removal of people with the disease, to be held until their symptoms abated. At the time there was no treatment for leprosy though it is easily treated today, and there was a great deal of fear around the contagiousness of the disease, though most people are immune. The Lazaret opened in 1907 to house 71 patients - 16 white patients and 55 “coloured” or non-white patients. The government’s decision to create a multi-racial Lazaret was based on minimizing state expenditure. This was further reflected in the ongoing substandard living conditions for the patients, and the almost complete lack of medical treatment facilities in the early period of the lazaret, with medical staff only visiting the island once per week at best.
Early 20 th century social divisions and racist attitudes were reflected in the different housing provided to the patients. White patients were accommodated in simply furnished, one roomed timber and tin-roofed huts set in wire-fenced compounds separated for white men and white women. The “coloured” compound was located approximately 100 yards away, where initially non-white patients were housed in bark roofed bush huts with earthen floors and cypress clad walls were erected by workers from nearby Aboriginal missions. Whilst all patients could mix freely throughout the day, white and non-white patients did not share recreation or dining facilities, and at night patients were locked in their separate gender- and race-specific compounds to prevent them from engaging in illicit sexual relationships.
Small improvements to the buildings and conditions
“The winter season is here and how are we to live?” – letter to Home Secretary from delegation of “coloured” patients. April 1909
The general conditions in the “coloured” compound continued to deteriorate and this was reflected in the disparity between death rates of white and non-white patients, with a much higher mortality rate for non-white patients..
In 1909 some improvements were made to make the structures more protected from the weather. The timber and tin huts of the white’s compounds had awnings attached and the “coloured” huts were reclad and re-roofed in corrugated iron sheeting. These huts for non-whites lacked glazed windows and initially had earth, and then later concrete floors.
Before 1911 patients were treated with Nastin, which was ineffective and explains the high mortality rates between 1907 and 1911. After 1911 treatment for the disease was based on daily administrations of Chaulmoogra Oil. This caused many patients to become nauseous and proved to be totally ineffective.
Patients and staff however attempted to make their lives more bearable. Gardening was encouraged, fishing, boating and reading were popular and some patients undertook work to overcome their boredom and despair. A church was constructed in 1908, however the first dedicated treatment area or surgery was not built until 1925.
The Lazaret continued to slowly develop. In 1937, some thirty years after the site opened, a six-bed hospital was constructed. Around this time some of the timber and tin huts were relocated to the female “coloured” compound to improve accommodation there.
1940s: A whites only Lazaret and medical improvements
“This place will probably haunt me till my dying day.” Former nurse Rosemary Opala nee Fielding.
In January 1940, all the non-white patients were transferred under police escort to Fantome Island in North Queensland. There the conditions were even worse resulting in an even higher mortality rate than at Peel Island, with eighty per cent of those who were transferred to Fantome Island dying within five years.
The Peel Island Lazaret operated then only for white patients. In 1941, a fire destroyed the recreation hut on Peel Island. Arson by the patients was strongly suspected but could not be proven. A recreation hall was built 4 years later and became the social centre for the institution. Films were shown once per week and visiting Salvation Army bands and other concert parties provided occasional entertainment.
The social stigma of the disease caused ongoing staffing and servicing challenges. Some younger nursing staff had to defy their families wishes to serve on Peel Island. Rosemary Opala was one nurse who engaged with the patients and the island itself. Between her duties, she painted, explored the island and attempted to make the most of its beauty and isolation.
Patients, medical staff and others also continued the fight for better resources. In 1948 Dr Eric Reye’s threats to resign resulted in the relocation of several ex-army huts to the island to improve the facilities available.
Medical care improves and a cure is found
“...once we got onto the drug treatment the [patient] numbers were going down.” – Dr Eric Reye, Lazaret Medical Superintendent late 1940s, interview 1995.
The first resident doctor for the island, Dr Lennon, was appointed in 1949. This corresponded with the development of the drug Promin, which was at last an effective treatment for Hansen’s Disease.
Dr Gabriel was the final Medical Officer for the Peel Island Lazaret. He arrived with his young family in 1951 and stayed till its closure in 1959. They were housed in one of the ex-army barracks located at the north-eastern corner of the Lazaret. Film footage from the Gabriel Family gives a rare insight into their life at Peel Island.
With the advent of the new drug treatments, over 39 patients were cured and discharged between 1951 and 1959. The remaining few patients transferred to the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane. The Fantome Island Lazaret by comparison did not close until 1973.
Over 400 people were detained at Peel Island Lazaret for having an illness which did not pose a real threat to the broader community. Of these, 250 died and were buried on the island at a nearby cemetery.
Neither the disease nor the law discriminated with age. The oldest patient admitted was 92 and the youngest only 7 years old.
After its closure the surrounding natural vegetation began to encroach on the abandoned huts and buildings. The decaying ruins of the institution have created an evocative atmosphere of lost time and people, hidden from view from the rest of society.
Recording the site
Since 2012, a team composed of investigators from Australia’s National Science Agency, the CSIRO, and researchers and students from the University of Queensland School of Architecture have been scanning the site with assistance from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services (QPWS) and other collaborators including Queensland University of Technology (QUT) staff and students, CSIRO, and V-Tol Aerospace. All parties have worked free of charge to develop and progress the scanning project.
The technology employed included the use of a prototype Zebedee 3D laser scanner, developed by CSIRO, as well as a commercialised version, the Zeb1 by GeoSLAM; a Leica P-16, CSIRO’s prototype BentWing done-based scanner, CSIRO’s Hovermap flown as a payload by V-TOL Aerospace; the experimental N-E-Wheel scanning robot which is a collaborative project between CSIRO and QUT’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems Lab; and the CSIRO’s Hexapod scanning robot. Additionally, The University of Queensland has run a number of research projects and academic courses on the Peel Island site. Scanning will continue on site to both experiment with new robots and scanners, and monitor and evaluate the heritage site over time using scan data. The visits to Peel Island were facilitated by QPWS and the site’s traditional owners Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation.
The Peel Island lazaret was inscribed into the Queensland Heritage Register in 1993 in recognition of its cultural and historical significance. From 2007, it has been part of the Teerk Roo Ra National Park, and is owned by the Quandamooka people and jointly managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and the Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation. The community organisation Friends of Peel Island Incorporated works to maintain the buildings, cooperates with site managers and maintains an active oversight of the lazaret’s legacy.
More information can be found here.