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Morgan Gabriel’s school education had been completed at Brisbane Grammar, which he left after completing his Junior Certificate. For a time, he had worked in the Taxation Department which he disliked, and then as a Cadet in the Laboratory of the State Health Department. He remained there for some eleven years as a Government Analyst, and it was during this time that he also resumed his schooling and, by studying at night, finally obtained his Senior School Certificate. This was followed by study for a Science Degree, which he obtained as an external student studying over six years. In 1944 he was one of a group of students to be awarded the first State Government Bonded Fellowships to the University of Queensland. Thus, he was finally able to afford a long-held ambition to study for his Degree in Medicine which he finally obtained in 1950. His aim was to specialize in Gynaecology but part of his Fellowship Bond was that he had to repay the years spent in study with an equal time in an area of the Government’s choosing. To Dr Fryberg’s mind, he was the answer to Peel’s problems, and Dr Gabriel was duly appointed the island’s first Resident Medical Superintendent, having full control over the island’s affairs. 

Dr Morgan Gabriel and Matron Marie Ahlberg at Peel Island

Peel Island could not have been further from Dr Gabriel’s plans, especially when he was also planning to marry, and he hated the whole idea, but because of his contract with the Government, he could do little but accept. His first months there were stormy, and he clashed with both staff and patients to enforce both more responsible policies for the running of the settlement. Firstly, he reduced alcohol consumption on the island by limiting its consumption to one bottle of beer per week. Any staff members found drunk on duty would be immediately sent to the Health Department for dismissal. As can be expected his popularity was not high amongst the inhabitants of Peel. 

It says much for Dr Gabriel that he weathered the storm, for his character was of such strength that he would not compromise a principle he believed in. As well as his strength, he was also fortunate in being a caring and kind-hearted man who could sympathize with the patients’ condition. These two qualities were to prove ideal and necessary for the newly created position.

One of the first improvements he made at Peel was that of the meals, and it was one to which the patients responded readily. Many more were to follow, and when it became obvious that the new doctor had their welfare at heart, the patients quickly warmed to him and it wasn’t long before they were to look on him as a true friend and confidant to whom they could turn and discuss their problems. Indeed, for Dr Gabriel’s wedding, the patients all chipped in and bought a present for him and his new wife, soon to be affectionately known by all as “Johnny”.  With Peel’s past reputation, it must have been difficult for her to set up house there, but she settled into her new surroundings and quickly made friends with the patients. When their two children, Bill and Ruth, were born, they, too, lived with their parents in the doctor’s residence to the east of the men’s compound. This fact alone would have done much to dispel the stigma associated with the dangers of Hansen’s Disease and young children.

Doctor’s house at the Lazaret in 1950s (Photo courtesy Dr Morgan Gabriel)

When Morgan Gabriel first arrived at Peel, he knew little about Hansen’s Disease. But because he was not the sort of man to engage in any activity without a thorough knowledge of his subject, he set about learning as much as possible about the latest developments in Hansen’s Disease and its treatment. This knowledge he also passed on to the many of his patients who were interested in new treatments for their disease, and over the next decade, he would introduce many new drugs at Peel in a constant search for more effective results. 

As well as educating himself and the patients about Hansen’s Disease, Dr Gabriel also missed no opportunity in encouraging medical students to visit Peel and familiarise themselves with the disease and its early symptoms. 

Dr Gabriel was also of the belief that it was necessary to keep his patients’ hands and muscles working and minds occupied. Towards this end he encouraged them to engage in as many activities as possible. Occupational therapy was available in the form of leather, plastic, and cane work, and many patients were put on the payroll in positions that included truck driver, barber, painter, handyman, groundsman, and seamstress. In 1952 a new patients’ dining room was constructed, mainly by the work of the patients themselves. One patient undertook the school Junior Certificate course, and one of the blind patients who retained full sensitivity in the fingertips learnt braille. In September 1956 a naturalisation ceremony was conducted at the hospital when one of the patients became an Australian citizen. 

Dr Morgan Gabriel was Peel’s last resident doctor from 1951 until the Lazaret’s closure in 1959.

(Extract from ‘Peel Island History – A Personal Quest’)