Prelude to Peel Island’s Lazaret

In Queensland, the first case recording symptoms resembling those of Leprosy was in 1855, a Chinaman, Oun Tsar, at the Brisbane Hospital.  He was to die in 1859 ‑ undiagnosed. At this time, too, the hospital was recording many cases of Islander “Toe Disease”.  Leprosy once again diagnosed incorrectly. 

 For the next 35 years there was a steady increase in the number of reported Leprosy cases, all confined to Chinese and Islander immigrants, and the aborigines who “caught anything”. By 1889, although the public at large still thought Leprosy to be a “foreigner’s disease”, the Government deemed it prudent to segregate some Chinese cases at Cooktown.  The following year, an official Leper Station was established there. 

     The notion of Leprosy as purely a foreigner’s disease was dispelled in 1892 when a Queensland born white by the name of Quigley contracted the disease.  After being kept in forced isolation in a tent for six months at the Brisbane Hospital, the Government sought to legalize such segregation by passing the Queensland Leprosy Act of 1892. This Act formalized the detention and segregation of all those suffering from Leprosy in special areas known as lazarets or Leprosariums.  Coloured patients were sent to Friday Island in the Thursday Island Group.  White patients went to Dunwich on Stradbroke Island. 

Queensland Lazarets (The coloured patients were transferred from Peel Island to Fantome Island in 1940)

The following article from The Week newspaper of 4 November 1904 reflects the terms and thinking of that era:

Lepers Going to Friday Island

General Clearing Up

Recently the Home Department felt that owing to the slight increase in leprosy among the kanakas of the State, it was desirable to collect the patients and send them to Friday Island, where the lazarette for coloured races has long been established. There were two coloured lepers at Dunwich, two came from Bundaberg on Monday, three from remote parts of the State, and there are three yet to be brought down from the northern coast. So far all those who have arrived in Brisbane have been placed on board the auxiliary schooner Rio Loge, where they will be kept until the remaining patients arrive before being taken to the lazarette on Friday Island. The official number of black lepers are set down as males, 9; females, 1.

The idea is to rid the State of this collection of leprosy in one shipload instead of segregating the patients at different towns. If is likely that the Rio Loge will be ready to sail for Friday Island at an early date.

Doctor Horace Tozer, Superintendent of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, was placed in charge of both Leprosariums.

By 1906 there were 21 inmates at the Dunwich lazaret which was housed in buildings adjacent to the Asylum’s Men’s Quarters to the south.  As had been the practice for some years, the dull lives of the Asylum’s inmates had been brightened by the theatrical performances of the Postmaster, a certain Mr Agnew and his son Noel (“Laddie”).  The lazaret patients were also allowed to attend.  Little heed was paid to the close contact between the Leprosy patients and the old folk until Noel Agnew contracted the disease.  It was then that the Government decided on total segregation of the Hansen’s patients and they were moved to a new lazaret in the north western corner of nearby Peel Island.

The Peel Island lazaret opened in 1907 with the segregation of 17 white patients.  Not only were they segregated from society but also from each other according to sex, race, and form of the disease.  Later in the year, their number was swelled by the transfer of the 40 coloured patients from the Friday Island lazaret after its closure.

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

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