Doctor David Cilento – 3 – The Doctors Carl and David Cilento

‘To finance my medical studies, I helped a restaurant. I had left home when I was about sixteen, and teamed up with a Russian friend Kyrill Wypow who was 15 years older than I was. I had put together a bit of money from building fishing rods, and screen printing, and all sorts of other things: I was a bit of an entrepreneur. We started a restaurant called ‘The Pelican Tavern’ down on St Paul’s Terrace. It was a tricky life because I had often went to the markets at 5 in the morning, help with the business, go to lectures, and study at night. I’ve never slept more than about 5 hours a night all my life. (It’s still a misery for my wife, Eileen, at times!)

‘Carl was my elder brother: he was eight years older than I was.  He was a boating man always. Carl and I both went to an auction of land at Kooringal on Moreton Island. The prices were so good that we bought two blocks there. I urged Carl to set up his medical practice there, so he paid $1800 for one block and $1670 for the other.  He started a practice there, and I started going back seeing people at Amity again, but only at the weekends, and that lasted for years and years. In our spare time we’d visit each other and go fishing. There were a lot of kerosene fridges at Amity after the electricity arrived, and standing on the foreshore was an old windmill which I had rigged up with an old International truck generator and that sent a bit of power into the place to recharge the batteries. Once the power came on at Amity the fridges and the windmill went over to Kooringal. I had a big punt and as long as people gave me enough money for fuel, I’d bring the fridges over for them. Carl’s son, Peter, put in a nice generator there. Carl did a couple of amazing saves of people’s lives by being able to call up the helicopter. By that time, I was only seeing the odd patients at Amity or those occasionally coming in from Dunwich. I was still claimed as a fellow soul by the Aboriginal families such as the Coolwells, and some of the Ruskas. Every time I was in town my good friend of many years Emma Coolwell would rush up to me and give me a kiss and a hug – much to some people’s amazement.

Central Moreton Bay

 ‘Although I had brought my family up to Brisbane from Amity, I never really left my medical practice on the island. I’d go back for a week sometimes, but I really felt worn out. The Tazi mine people, wanted me to be a full-time doctor there, and were going to give me a surgery at Dunwich. They wanted me to do all their staff medicals as well as being a GP. Dunwich was coming on because the barges had started, but Frank Carroll had bitten the bullet and said he would give it a go, and he was very successful. I had started the practice at the office at the Forbes’ place – Elkorn Lodge on the beach at the end of Birch Street, next to the old Post Office – I still have the sign: my brass plate and the hours. I’d go down either in my boat or on the barge on a Friday and come back on a Monday morning. Then I’d go to work (in Brisbane) Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday before returning to Stradbroke on Friday. The grape vine there was absolutely phenomenal. The islanders knew exactly how long it would take me to get from Dunwich (where the barge landed) to Amity; whether I was on the barge; and they knew when the boat was late; but as soon as I got to the surgery the phone would ring ‘Hello doc. I only need a script’.

‘Our house at Amity was called ‘Didjabringabiralong’ It looked like an Aboriginal word and people would say ‘How do you pronounce it?’ It was the Gregory’s old house which they had bought in 1931. The house was built in 1926, which I bought and added to. It grew like topsy. We also owned the place behind it. I sold up both and we moved down the beach a bit to a site more protected from erosion by rocks placed on the foreshore, and now known as “shoreline armouring”. In the shoreline management plan, all those rocks are illegal under the rules of the Maritime Services (then Harbours and Marine), and EHA (Evironment and Heritage Agency). It has now been proven to work with the aid of a remarkable man called Konrad Beinssen, a very wonderful marine and littoral scientist. He is now a world authority on beach front erosion in many parts of the world. He has discovered what we call a slide-flow breach is a change in the patterning of the slope of the sand, as in the Rainbow Channel. If you dig a hole at the bottom of the slope it puts the sand at a different pitch as the sand starts falling into it, and it keeps falling into it, until it makes this enormous fan shaped hole which is pouring out into the deep water, until it hits something that stops it. The boss of littoral science from the Netherlands, called Dick Masbergen, came out and verified Konrad’s discovery. We have now stopped the erosion at Amity. We invited the whole of the Redland Council over and about 9 or 10 came. They had lunch and I said I would stand the Mayor on a rock that we had put in 42 years before. They couldn’t believe me because they’d paid $50,000 to a littoral engineer to produce a report that said Amity is doomed. This meant that if your house was so many metres near the waterfront, you either had to knock if down or take it away. Which is rubbish. Anyway the Councillors came over and wanted to know how long this thriving frontal protection had been going on! They were absolutely astounded. This is a problem with many Government Departments, who make decisions without ever having physically observed the problems themselves.’

Kooringal – Dr Carl Cilento Memorial Helipad at Kooringal (photo Kathy Brinckman)
Dr Carl Cilento Memorial inscription (photo Kathy Brinckman)

Doctor David Cilento – 2 – My Father, Sir Raphael Cilento

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.’

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)