Electricity Comes to Peel Island Lazaret

In 1947 conditions were greatly improved for the patients at Peel Island’s lazaret by the introduction of two diesel powered electricity generators comprising two (2) 20 K.V.A. and one (1) 5 K.V.A. alternators each driven by a Ruston high speed vertical diesel engineNow each cabin could be lit at the flick of a switch, there were street lights, and even movies twice a week in the recreation hall.

Peel Island Lazaret – c.1955 – from left: hospital, kitchen, power house (photo Dr Morgan Gabriel)

The diesel generators were switched on at dusk and operated until ten o’clock producing electricity for the settlement. On ‘non picture’ nights, Doris Gabriel, wife of the Medical Superintendent, would spend her time catching up on her family’s ironing.

Prior to the electricity being installed, light was supplied by hurricane lanterns or kerosene pressure lamps. For night surgery, electric power was supplied by two 6-volt car batteries which Dr Reye had removed from his yacht “Maroomba”.  The idea was that while one was in use, the other would be sent to Dunwich for recharging.  Electricity helped make the patients’ nights less drab and long, and certainly made night surgery much easier. 

 The advent of electricity also paved the way for the purchase of a cinematograph which was installed in 1948 in the special room at the eastern end of the recreation hall. Movie films were shown twice a week and proved very popular with both patients and staff alike.  All types of films were shown, but occasionally the odd Hollywood “Biblical epic” would make reference to the Leper outcasts, and these would cause great offence to the patients watching the film. Selection of this type of film was carefully avoided. 

Ron Ricketts, an electrical contractor, recalls: ‘It was my job to go into each patient’s hut and drill holes to which would be attached the gear to receive the power line. There were two male patients who always seemed to be together and they offered to help me erect the electric light poles. There was no crane on the island so we first had to dig a hole for the pole, then pull it up with ropes. I must admit that I was a bit worried when our bodies came into contact during this operation!’

Another symptom of leprosy was a numbness of the skin and this resulted in some patients burning themselves on hot objects because they couldn’t feel pain. Up until the time we introduced the electricity at Peel, each hut was lit by only a kerosene (hurricane) lamp. These were a constant source of patient burns, and so if for no other reason, the introduction of electricity would have been of great benefit to the patients.