People of Peel Island – 4 – Biochemist, Dorothy Herbert 

In January 1947 Promin therapy was introduced to treat the leprosy patients at Peel Island lazaret. Its daily intravenous administration necessitated Doctor Eric Reye remaining full time on the island. Thus, he became Peel’s first Resident Medical Officer, and his wife, Mardi, was appointed a temporary laboratory assistant, because no one was available at the time, and because the nurses were fully occupied. By the end of 1947, the services of a science graduate, Miss Dorothy Herbert, had been obtained, and Mardi was no longer needed. 

Because of the possible haematological effects of the sulphones on the body, a laboratory was set up on Peel for blood counting and urine examination

For a start, the laboratory was set up in a disused hut down in the bush, but because of its distance, dilapidation, and lack of water, Dr Reye asked the Padre if he could use the Church as a laboratory.  All would have been well but for the Roman Catholic patients who refused to enter the church because it had been consecrated “Anglican”. The best Dr Reye could do was to coax them into the church’s tiny vestibule where staff took the necessary samples from them. Clearly, this was not a satisfactory arrangement, and new premises again had to be found for the laboratory. The choice fell to the library cum billiard room, which belonged to the male patients. 1

Dorothy Herbert outside the laboratory at Peel Island lazaret in 1948

Dorothy worked as a biochemist at the Peel Island lazaret during 1948. She then moved to Tasmania in 1949 and worked as a biochemist at Royal Hobart Hospital.

After a year in the United Kingdom, she returned to Brisbane to study medicine at the University of Queensland. After graduating in 1958, she spent 2 years as a resident medical officer at Brisbane General Hospital.

In 1961, she moved to Charleville to work as a locum for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) for 3 months. She remained in Charleville in private practice until 1981.

In 1963, Dorothy bought her first aircraft — a 1957 single-engine Cessna, which she used to fly to emergencies of her own patients, medical conferences and remote properties. She was a member of a flying surgeon team and would stand in for the flying doctor as required. At a time when there were few women doctors and fewer women pilots, Dorothy made quite an impression flying to remote communities with her three corgis in tow.

Cessna 172 of a type similar to Dorothy’s plane

In 1981, Dorothy left Charleville and semiretired to the Sunshine Coast (with her Major Mitchell cockatoo, Linda). She continued to work in general practice, specialising in acupuncture and aviation medicine. She fully retired in 1996, when she also flew her final flight. Her flying record at this time totalled 2200 hours.

She was awarded the Nancy Bird Walton Trophy for services to aviation in Australasia in 1972. In 1997, she was made an honorary life member of the Aviation Medicine Society of Australia and New Zealand for her contribution as a designated examiner for 35 years. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1999 for her service to rural medicine through the RFDS and to aviation through the AWPA. She also received a Centenary Medal in 2001 for her distinguished service to the RFDS.2

References: 1. Peel Island History – A Personal Quest

                     2. Medical Journal of Australia, vol 202, no 7, 2015, p 391

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