Doctor David Cilento – 1 – First G.P. at Stradbroke

After the closure of the Benevolent Asylum at Dunwich in 1946, Stradbroke Island was left without a doctor until Dr David Cilento arrived at Amity in the 1960s. Life at Amity was very simple then: there were two bakeries, the butcher and the hairdresser. The island’s fuel also came in there and that was very important. People brought their cars over and empty tanks for water storage. David still recalls the sound of an empty tank rolling down a rough road in the middle of the night. Three days a week the pub at Point Lookout sent a truck around to Amity and Dunwich, which, under the laws, was supposed to be a pre-ordered delivery, but it had a cash register in the back and an awful lot of stock!

As well as Amity, David had a medical practice in the Brisbane suburb of Grange, and lived opposite the Wilston State School. His neighbour was Stan Spencer, an entrepreneur who ran E.S.Spencer Typewriters. He was importing Helvetia and Hermes Typewriters, and he had his own brand too. He owned a boat called the ‘Mahra’, a beautiful 1904 yawl, and although he had been crippled with polio as a youngster, he refused any help to sail it. David also had a boat called the ‘Phaethon’ (a Greek god but also a species of the Frigate bird) and it was this common interest in boating that brought the pair together. 

Stan was very interested in maintaining Bird Island, an islet situated just off Dunwich, because it was subject to washaways. In those days, it had a smattering of beach grass but nothing else, so Stan took a couple of Casuarina trees over there. Then he suggested to David that they should plant some more, and as David was often down there anyway with his boat ‘Phaethon’, he readily agreed. 

David remembers: ‘I collected a bundle of Casuarinas from Amity and we took them over to Bird Island and planted them. I had a couple of big rubbish tins which I filled with water. There was a creek at Adam’s Beach at Dunwich from which we obtained fresh water, or we went to Myora springs. They still had the weir there then and if you went on a good tide, you could just paddle in, and dip water out of the weir. Of course, they’ve knocked all of that down now. Anyway we took the water over to Bird and watered the trees. They grew very well, actually, because there was plenty of organic matter and plenty of birds. We did that for a few years, but I had to come back to Brisbane because we had to make a decision about where to send the kids to school. People frequently came over to Bird Island from Horseshoe Bay on nearby Peel Island. They could nose their boats right in to the northern side of Bird because there was a drop off there, and they could tie up to one of the trees. We put a rubbish tin for a while, but somebody stole it.

Bird Island with its Casuarinas still growing (photo Peter Ludlow)

David continues: ‘I left Amity after about three years, so there was no permanent doctor on Stradbroke for a few years, until Frank Carroll arrived in about 1972. Frank came from Ipswich and he had a big family. He was a good bloke, but well suited to island life and became a real institution. He was an exceptional doctor.

‘Then the Environmental Protection Agency and their minions decided that I had been an ‘Enviro Nazi’ so they went over to Bird Island, cut all the trees down and poisoned them. They put up a notice which stated that the trees had been planted illegally by members of the boating public and an island identity (which must have been me, I think), and they said it endangered the native birds, and a lot of other hogwash. Everyone was outraged, but the authorities responsible just left the trees where they fell, and people just piled them up in a big heap. They didn’t know what to do with them really. There was terrible outrage, especially from the boaties. Then an Osprey came along and over a period of some weeks, it had torn up a few bits of timber and it started building a nest on the pile of twigs. It felt safe in the isolation, because no one was going there much. It was just a desert island again. Then the wind started blowing the sand away. Sand loss was exacerbated further in 1974 when cyclone ‘Wanda’ removed about 10 metres from the eastern end of the island and put a new little channel through the island. It lasted a few years but then filled up again. After the trees had been cut down, they never grew back, and people just pulled the timber remnants off the island and probably used them for firewood. ‘

Bird Island after the destruction of the Casuarinas (photo Peter Ludlow)