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David Cilento was a too young to ever go to Peel Island when it was in business as a leprosarium (1907 – 1959). His father, Sir Raphael Cilento, when he was Director General of Health, had removed all the Aborigines from Peel in 1940. He was away in Europe when the War ended, because he was one of the world’s top epidemiologists and he was controlling epidemics in up to 10 million displaced people in Europe. Then the cure for leprosy came in at Peel in 1947: firstly Promin which wasn’t very efficient, then Dapsone, and lastly the Triple Therapy (dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine) which is still used today.

The Aboriginal people at Peel were transferred to Fantome Island in the Palm Island Group because Peel was becoming very overcrowded by 1940. The Aborigines were a dispirited lot having been bought to Peel from such places as Cherbourg and outlying districts out west and up north. There was a pocket of leprosy north of Townsville and another at Yarrabah, which was an isolated mission then – no roads or anything. But Sir Raphael, as Director General of Health, had the power to move the Aborigines from Peel up to Fantome Island which had been a lock hospital, and had a few huts.  Orpheus Island was nearby and was privately owned. Palm Island had a settlement. None of them had any water, which was a serious problem. The water table was a problem and was only about a metre below the surface. David can remember his father saying that to get water into there they had boats coming over on a weekly basis. 

Map showing the relative positions of Fantome and Peel Islands

David continues: ‘When dad came back from overseas after working with the United Nations, he came back to a job but the Government had changed. Not only was he the Director General of Health, but he was knighted for removing malaria from Australia. What he did, of course, would have put him in jail now, because he drained a lot of wetlands! But it got rid of the anopheles mosquito. He became a barrister and he became Director General of Health and Home Affairs, which included the police, and he was always getting called into Court. He was a most interesting bloke, and was better known than my mother at that time. He was well known overseas while her star was rising here. When he came back, he thought ‘Well, I’ll become a GP again.’ So he did, and worked up on the Sunshine Coast.

‘When the treatment for Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease or simply HD as it became known) became available in 1947 after the second world war, my dad was overseas. But he was still smart enough to make a diagnosis of HD in a patient at Royal Brisbane in about 1955. He asked the doctors what tests they had done: pauci bacteria or multi bacteria but they had already lost their diagnostic skills for HD. He wrote the book ‘Treatment of Tropical Diseases’ in the 1930s, which was used by the Americans and the Japanese, but the Australians decided that they would use something else at first, but later they decided that they woulduse it. There is an old saying One is rarely a prophet in one’s own backyard.He also wrote the book ‘Triumph in the Tropics’ with Clem Lake for the Queensland Centenary in 1959. 

‘I was born in Australia as was my father, Raphael. I was fourth generation Australian. My great grandfather was Salvatore and he was then the Prince of Naples and the two Sicilies. This was the time when the civil war was on and Ferdinand and Victor Emmanuel wanted to unite all of Italy and make the one king over the lot My great great great grandfather was the king of Naples and the two Siciles, the “Sicily the first” being part of the boot and “Sicily the second” being the island.’