Miss Red Lead, Marjorie (‘Mardi’) Spencer

Marjorie recalls: I had married Dr Eric Reye in August 1945, and by this time, Eric had been appointed a full-time Government Medical Officer, and was visiting the Peel Island Lazaret (Leprosarium) regularly. In January 1947 Promin therapy was introduced there, and its daily intravenous administration necessitated Eric remaining full time on the island. Thus, he became Peel’s first Resident Medical Officer, and I 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 (later Dr.) Herbert had been obtained, and I was no longer needed. 

There was no provision for accommodation of a Medical Officer on Peel so to accommodate me, Eric purchased a wartime surf landing dory that, because of its flat bottom, was easily beached amongst the mangroves at the base of the lazaret’s north embankment. The mosquitoes and biting midges could be very troublesome at times and we had double mosquito nets on our barge which we also sprayed with fly spray for more protection.

Mardi on Maroomba with Coolooloa in the mangroves (photo courtesy Eric Reye)

Eric and I were forced to continue living on the boat for about a year. Patient accommodation was also desperately short, and it was only on Eric’s threat of resignation that two ex-army huts were procured from Redbank and shipped to the Island. Finally, in September 1947, we were able to move ashore and occupy the new Doctor’s residence which was situated at the top of the embankment several hundred metres to the east of the men’s compound. Its small balcony commanded a fine, sweeping view northwards across the waters of Moreton Bay towards the rolling tree covered sand hills of Moreton Island. Closer to home in the water at the bottom of the embankment, Eric’s yacht Maroomba rested at her moorings. 

My laboratory duties involved taking blood samples, and I went to the Red Cross Blood Bank in Brisbane to learn the basics. There I learnt how to perform white and red blood cell counts. I also tested patient’s urine samples for diabetes. The blood samples were taken from the patients’ ear lobes because there was less chance of infection from that site. Before I took the sample, I would wipe the site with ether to cleanse it.

Another of my occupations on Peel was to read to the blind patients, especially Bert Cobb, who was a learned man with a fine collection of books in his hut. He was not able to learn Braille because his Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) had left him with no feeling in his fingers.

In those days, boat’s hulls were painted with a mixture of red lead powder and linseed oil for protection from seawater vermin. However, we didn’t have any linseed oil, so Eric substituted shark liver oil which had a most unpleasant pong. However, the smell didn’t worry me, so I went on using it. I used to get the red lead in my hair, which I washed out with kerosene from our Primus stove. This turned me from a blond into a redhead, and earned me the nickname of ‘Miss Red Lead’.

One of Eric’s duties as Medical Officer at Peel Island was to search out new cases of Hansen’s Disease occurring on the mainland. Once I accompanied him to Mona Mona on the Atherton Tableland to pick up two Aboriginal sisters who were found to have the disease. One however was sick and she had to be left off at Cairns before being sent on to Fantome Island (the Aboriginal Leprosarium in the Palm Island Group, which Eric was also in charge of).

Mona Mona Mission in the 1940s showing the marriage ceremony of 6 couples (photo Courtesy Eric Reye)

Eric resigned as Medical Officer at Peel Island when he was not allowed by the Health Department to do further patient surveys in the Aboriginal communities behind Cairns. I had been interested in Aboriginal anthropology to the extent of going down to Sydney to the university for six months, but when Eric resigned, I gave it away. We stayed on his boat on the river at Yeronga, where Eric commenced his study of biting midges. We then split up and I went home and worked as a librarian, first at Stones Corner and then at South Brisbane.

Marjorie Spencer


October 2011

Extract from ‘Moreton Bay People 2012 by Peter Ludlow (now out of print)