The Soils of Peel Island

Moreton Bay was formed when the sea level rose after the last ice age from 12,000 to 8000 years ago. Then sand washed northward by the ocean currents was deposited along its perimeter to form the enclosing islands of Stradbroke, Moreton, and Bribie. Within the bay, as the sea levels rose, only the mountain tops remained to form islands. Peel Island is one of these.

The soils of Peel Island have been formed from basalt, laid down by regional volcanic activity 28-20 million yBP (years before present). Underneath this basalt are sandstones from the Jurassic period, 213-144 million yBP. In turn these sandstones cover metamorphic rocks which are from 360 to 248 million years old.1

Sandstone cliffs at The Bluff 1987 (photo Peter Ludlow) German women from the early quarantined ships baked bread in the sandstone caves.

All the rock units on the island have been deeply weathered to form krasnozems – strongly structured, clay-textured, red acid soils. The clay content is characteristically more than 50% throughout but the surface soil behaves like a loam, owing to its humus content. The subsoil is moderately to strongly acid and its water holding capacity is low. The krasnozems of this area are residual soils occurring on modified old land surfaces but they have formed in parent rocks that weather to produce much clay, such as basalt. There is a lateritic variant containing much ironstone gravel.1

Exposed laterite at the ‘Red Hill’ quarry, Peel Island 2010. The leprosy patients quarried the laterite for surfacing the roads.

 Laterite is not uniquely identified with any particular parent rock. It is a rock product that is a response to a set of physio-chemical conditions, which include; an iron containing parent rock, a well drained terrain, abundant moisture for hydrolysis during weathering, relatively high oxidation potential and the persistence of these conditions over many thousands of years.1

FOPIA group on road from the site of the western jetty 2004 The quarry is just inland from the approach to the former western jetty.

(1 = Prepared by Paul Cannard and David Weir, when students at the Moreton Institute of TAFE)

The Island of the Living Dead

Part of Father Gabriel Nolan’s duties as Parish Priest at Manly was to service the Moreton Bay islands of Peel and North Stradbroke. Here Father Nolan reflects: 

‘On my first visit to the Lazaret at Peel Island, I was very apprehensive. The Bible, of course, is full of references to leprosy and to the exclusion of lepers from the rest of society. It was difficult not to view the patients at Peel Island in such a manner, so I sought the advice of those who worked amongst the patients: the Matron and the nursing sisters. After their reassurances that it was quite all right to have contact with the patients without the need for any special precautions, I followed their example and moved freely amongst these unfortunate souls. The only warning I was given was to keep my feet covered because at that time it was thought that the Leprosy bacteria might survive in the ground.

‘I visited Peel once a month, arriving on the Wednesday morning, and leaving the next afternoon. My first duty was to chat with the staff over a cup of tea and then visit the patients individually. After a short rest in the heat of the afternoon, I would visit the patients again that night, hearing Confession where appropriate. I visited anyone who wanted to see me, however I was warned that a Japanese patient was particularly violent, so I only went as far as his door to talk to him. He was very resentful, understandably, about being kept there against his will. 

‘Next morning, after sleeping in the Superintendent’s quarters, I would conduct Mass in the Roman Catholic church. Anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, was able to attend. To minimise the risk of cross infection, patients did not receive wine from the Chalice during Mass. They were offered the bread only. As well as the Catholic Church, the Anglicans had a large Church. Ministers of other religions, notably Cannon Miles, visited on alternate dates to myself.

(EDITOR: The Catholic church was situated at the back of the men’s compound and had once been a hut for several female aboriginal patients. After the aborigines were shifted off Peel up to Fantome Island off Townsville, the hut was shifted using a sled affair to its new position. For a time, it was used as a common room for the men, before being converted to the Catholic Church. Today, its wooden altar remains as well as the nails in the wall on which hung the Stations of the Cross. The fate of the Stations is unknown, but Father Nolan remembers taking the stone relic from the altar back to his Manly Parish when the institution at Peel was closed down.)

Peel Island Lazaret’s Catholic Church following Restoration 11.8.2011. (photo Scott Fowle)

Each patient had their own wooden hut and the whole place was rather beautiful. The only problem was that no one was allowed to leave until they were cured. I visited Peel Island throughout the 1950s, perhaps the best decade of all for this troubled place, because just prior to this, the cure for this ancient disease had been discovered. Most patients responded immediately to the drugs, and only the most advanced cases showed no improvement. To be pronounced ‘cured’ the patients had to produce negative blood smears for each of thirteen months. Thus, the minimum stay for a patient would have to be 13 months. In the past before the cure had been found, this procedure could be heart breaking when after, say, 12 negative smears, a positive one would show up and the patient would have to start the whole process from scratch again.

As well as Mass, I presided over many funerals. These were full ceremonies conducted in the church and at the graveside in the island’s cemetery. All patients used to attend where possible. The Doctor at that time, Morgan Gabriel, was a mighty man. When he first arrived, there was a serious alcohol problem with many of the non-medical staff. Doctor Gabriel had replaced Doctor Lennan, who was himself an alcoholic and unable to control the drinking problems in his staff. As well as being appointed Medical Superintendent of the island, Doctor Gabriel was also given control over non-medical staff. Risking great personal unpopularity, he firmly set new rules for behaviour. Anyone not shaping up would have to ship out. Within a short time, the troublemakers were removed, and morale improved.

I had a problem with some of the relatives of the patients, who tried to get me to use my influence with the Doctor to obtain favours for the patients. I always refused because I thought Doctor Gabriel already had the situation well in hand. Eventually as the curative effects of the drugs became apparent, patient numbers declined to such an extent that there were more staff than patients. Eventually in 1959, the remaining nine patients were transferred to a special annex at the Princess Alexandra Hospital. I never attended them there, though.

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.

A Day’s Routine at the Peel Island Lazaret

(Eric Reye & Rosemary Opala, Peel Island)

The Lazaret (Leprosarium) operated at Peel Island from 1907 until 1959 as the home and treatment centre for Queensland’s leprosy patients.  Like all medical institutions, it was run to a daily routine. Doctor Eric Reye, the island’s resident Medical Officer from 1945 until 1949, and Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding), a Nurse there during the late 1940s and again during the early 1950s have supplied the following,” typical” day’s duty roster for Peel’s medical staff. Two events were to modify their duties there in 1947: the introduction of electricity generation, and the introduction of Promin, the intravenous sulphone drug which was to finally control leprosy, the most dreaded of all contagious diseases.

Peel Island Lazaret – c.1955 – day surgery (red roof) and hospital (silver roof) (photo Dr Morgan Gabriel)


Nurses worked several weeks ‘on’, then took cumulative leave off the island. Originally no overtime was ever claimed but by Rosemary’s second term on the island during the 1950s, overtime payments were the norm.

Doctor Eric Reye spent alternate weekends off duty.


4.30AM            Nurses go to the surgery to start the two primuses that heat the big sterilizer. Water takes about an hour to boil.

6.00AM            The helpless hospital patients are washed, beds made, and medications given. The hospital orderly bathes the mobile male patients and takes care of the hospital generally.

8.00AM            Staff breakfast.

8.30 AM           Surgery (“clinic”) commences. Patients present themselves for dressings, check-ups, plasters.

On Mondays, “smears” are taken on a monthly rotational basis.

These involve the removal of a small blood sample from the patient’s ear lobe or eye brow (where the Leprosy bacteria is most intense).

These samples are sent to the Health Department Laboratory in Brisbane for testing. positive for the presence of the leprosy bacillus, negative for its absence. The patients are vitally interested in the results because they will be allowed to leave the island only when they have accumulated twelve monthly continuous negative smears. If one positive smear should be recorded, even after eleven months of negative results, they must begin counting all over again from their next negative smear. Such a result can be heartbreaking.

Chaulmoogra oil injections are given by nursing staff. (The only treatment for leprosy until the advent of Promin, chaulmoogra oil injections were very painful. It was also available as an extremely nauseating oral liquid. Although it produced symptoms indicating it was helping to kill the leprosy bacillus, it may have been only a placebo effect.) 

10.00AM          Medical & administration staff morning tea on the quarters’ verandah.

                                                Mail arrives at about this time.

10.30AM     Medical rounds of hut-fast patients either with the doctor or for routine dressings. Medical equipment has to be carried on a large tray.

 Basically, nursing care on Peel is as much as for any hospital ward.

 Doctor Reye’s particular jobs include:

 1. Fitting walking plasters for trophic ulcers.

These are time consuming to put on and remove.

     Staff make the plaster bandages by hand.

 2. Sharpening IV needles (non-disposable).

 3. Minor surgery. First aid.

 4. Dispensing (usually afternoons).

 5. Microscope work.

 6. Simple dental work (foot pedal drill and wooden barber’s chair).

 NOON:                       Lunch.

Life at Peel is “governed by the cook’s roster”.

All activities must be slotted in around the cook’s self-declared meal times.

  PM:           All staff have free afternoons until compulsory afternoon tea at 3.30 pm. This afternoon break is used for recreation with or without patients (tennis, swimming, bikes, etc.) also for reading to blind patients.

 Sometimes extraneous work is performed such as whitewashing the inside of an old hut for use as a makeshift laboratory.

 4.30 PM          Evening meal (cooks again!)

5.30PM            Evening surgery lit by pressure lamp on table. Usually minimal patient attendance. Day jobs finished. Patients’ temperatures charted. A medical round is held of any sick patients. No night nursing staff are rostered. Matron is called if there are any problems.


* Only tank, no sink. Hands are washed in a basin on a tripod, ‘Dettol’ is first added to the water.

* Zephiran solution (benzalkonium chloride) is used for skin preps and gloves.

* While on duty nurses wear theatre gowns.

* Hagedorn needles (for eyebrow and ear smears) are”flamed” between patients.

* “Sharps” are soaked in lysol.

* Blunts and enamel dishes are boiled up in primus operated boiler.

* Phenol is used for disinfecting commodes and sanitary tins.

Minimal cross infection recorded, except when “self-inflicted” by patients using their own ulcer treatment etc. (e.g. Grated apple and flower paste). Occasionally fly maggot infestation.

Eucalyptus full strength or iodoform sometimes needed as deodorant for discarded dressings.


6.00 AM           * Doctor Reye administers intravenous (IV) doses before breakfast, firstly in the surgery to the mobile patients.

 * Syringes (glass, luerlock) and needles are boiled between patients.

 Only 3 or 4 syringes are kept because they are expensive. Needles are sharpened at night. No disposables originally.

 * Patients’ blood is tested before Promin treatment is started.  Hb, WCC, and MCV are done weekly by Doctor Reye. Nurses help with slide preparation. Eventually, to ease the workload, a laboratory technician and assistant are employed.

 * A Blood bank is set up in case a patient experiences an adverse reaction to the Promin. Six bottles of blood are kept in the kerosene fridge on the hospital’ s south verandah.

* With the success of Promin in the treatment of leprosy, patient numbers gradually fall as the patients are allowed home. This lightens the nursing workload to the extent that it is necessary to “make work” on the afternoon shift.

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection. This book is still available from Boolarong Press at Boolarong


Rosemary Opala remembers:

During the – can it be? – five decades since I worked on Peel Island, the experience has provided material from medical interest to local, social and natural history. Even folklore! Occasionally I’ve been asked to ‘guest speak’ on nursing at the Lazaret, or field queries at a (now rare) island open-day. Invariably comes that question: “Weren’t you afraid of catching it?” To which the reply still remains: “Never gave it a thought.” And this answer would apply to all categories of Peel Island staff – despite that mythical ‘Danger Money’ allegedly needed for patient contact.

Some of us had heard a bit about poor Father Damien long before that truly moving film was contemplated of course. And I recall Matron Ahlberg handing me a little book called Damien the Leper: something about the hazards of sharing the patients’ pipes and blankets, and rather unlikely to involve us. Otherwise, there were no precautionary measures for a condition where even today the means of transmission remain unclear. Hansen’s Disease is said to be the least contagious of any infectious disease.  The crumpled cotton gowns we wore on duty were standard public hospital issue against pathogens, but on Peel mainly served to keep our nicely laundered uniforms clean.

Peel Island Lazaret – c.1955 – store, nurses’, matron’s quarters (photo Dr Morgan Gabriel)

These over-gowns were in short supply in the larger hospitals even after WWII and, handed on from one nursing shift to the next, were no doubt a focus of cross-infection. Round the time I met my first Peel Islanders in their pavilion-type ward at Wattlebrae (then Brisbane’s infectious diseases collection point), I was recovering from patient-transmitted Whooping Cough. “Reporting sick” was never appreciated, and as I couldn’t produce a Whoop in the Staff Clinic, I returned to my Pertussis patients with a bottle of cough linctus, Phenobarb tablets, and (later on) Pleurisy.

A colleague of mine only found she’d been working with Meningitis when she saw a school of fish swimming along the ward wall. She was put on the ‘seriously ill’ list but made a good recovery.

By contrast, Peel Island was not only a most interesting place of work, but also a real haven! Associated negative attitudes came from friends and family. In the period before the new treatment for H.D. arrived, my mother’s elderly GP reproached me for “throwing away your whole life!” Several of her neighbours stopped calling in.

In my mother’s position, though, I’m sure the issue wasn’t the concern over an irresponsible daughter’s Lost Future, but discomfort at our low-profile family being a Conversation Piece. And without even a broken romance to explain my behaviour!

At Peel Island – Nurse Rosemary Fielding (Opala), Superintendent Frank Mahoney, Matron Marie Ahlberg, Dr Eric Reye, Enrolled Nurse Sharp (?) late 1940s

Further on, as other young and enthusiastic nurses came and went through Peel, that irritation word dedication was heard less often. It has to be remembered that other personnel apart from medical willingly shared the patients’ lives. The permanent staff – all male – included managerial, kitchen, laundry and outside maintenance workers. And let’s not forget the good-hearted attendants (male orderlies) who cared for permanently incapacitated patients either in their little huts or the hospital, after-hours.

When invited, we all shared the patients’ social activities such as tennis, concerts, and dances. Ingrained Hospital Protocol, not fear of contagion, was a factor in nurses not further “fraternising with the patients”. I’ve told elsewhere of how we had to hike across to the Horseshoe to swim, instead of using the patients’ jetty at high tide, because it “wasn’t professional” to be seen in our decorous bathers.

A final word on the matter. Peel Island was a very healthy place for staff. Most bugs were picked up “off-island”, like the Measles that followed my visit to the Ekka.

Rosemary Opala

January 2003

Nurse Rosemary Fielding (later Opala), Peel Island late 1940s

(Extract from the ebook ‘Peel Island History – A Personal Quest’ Peter Ludlow, April 2015)

This ebook is still available as a PDF file from the author, Peter Ludlow. Click here for details.

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.

People of Peel Island – 7 – Doris Isobel Gabriel

Doris Isobel Gabriel was always known to her friends as Jonnie, a nick-name given to her by her father, and one she retained throughout her life. It was so typical of the person whose unaffected nature and readiness to help out where needed endeared her to so many. Jonnie revelled in helping out; whether it was on the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Women’s Auxilliary, Ignatian’s Musical Society, the Qld Light Opera Company, the Qld Conservatorium of Music, Savoyards or the Art’s Theatre. She was always there when needed.

When I first began my researches into the history of Peel Island’s Lazaret (way back in 1986) Jonnie Gabriel was the first person I interviewed. Jonnie, a former Theatre Sister had been married to the Late Doctor Morgan Gabriel, the Lazaret’s last Resident Medical Officer from 1951 until 1959. As such, she had lived on Peel in the doctor’s house during that time, and the couple raised their two children, Ruth and Bill, there, thus dispelling the myth that children could never remain on the island after birth because they were considered at risk of contracting the disease.

Doris Gabriel and Eric Reye revisiting the lazaret’s doctor’s quarters in 1993 (photo Peter Ludlow)

The Gabriel’s were always passionate about dispelling the stigma of leprosy and of leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) patients. To their credit, they were always prepared to lead by their own example.

Jonny remembers her near decade on Peel with her husband and young family as a time of great personal happiness and contentment. Dr Gabriel worked strict business hours, with an hour off for lunch, during which time he would often take his wife and children for a picnic at Horseshoe Bay. At other times, while he attended the hospital surgery, Jonny Gabriel would attend to the housework or take her children on walks through the bush to collect wild flowers. (She always carried a bill-hook, though, in case she chanced upon a snake). 

The diesel generators were switched on at dusk and operated until ten o’clock producing electricity for the settlement. On ‘non picture’ nights, Mrs Gabriel would spend her time catching up on her family’s ironing. However, she was always ready to join in any parties at the recreation hall, and one ex-patient still has a chuckle at the memory of a very pregnant Johnny Gabriel kicking balloons around the floor of the rec hall during a pre-Christmas wing-ding! 

During their time at the Lazaret until its closure Jonnie and her husband amassed a great collection of memorabilia: photos, memories, stories, other contact people, and artifacts. All of these Jonnie was more than happy to share, not just with me, but also with the Friends of Peel Island, and Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Much of the fine collection we have today is due to the generosity of Jonnie and Morgan Gabriel.

For this I am grateful, but most of all I am grateful for her friendship.

Peter Ludlow


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

 A Note of Discord at the Lazaret

The Aboriginal patients on Peel had long since been ‘Westernised’ in that they had all ceased to observe the tribal customs and traditions of their forebears. They dressed in white man’s clothes, spoke his language, and, on Peel at least, shared his diseases. Nevertheless, they did manage to retain a few of their indigenous skills, one of which was their interest in making ‘traditional’ Aboriginal weapons such as nulla nullas, spears, and boomerangs, which they used, not for hunting, but as rhythm sticks to accompany their dances at their many impromptu corroborees. Some of the men also made bows and arrows to shoot the many Lorikeets that frequented the trees around the lazaret. They prized the birds’ green feathers and used them as body ornamentation in their corroborees. The old tribal rituals and meaning had long since been lost in these dances, and the only purpose of the Corroborees on Peel was for entertainment. 

They were held in the Aborigines’ mess hut and were usually of a spontaneous nature. A large pine table pushed close to the wall served as a stage on which the Aborigines danced and sang to the rhythmic accompaniment of wooden boomerangs being struck together. The noise would have been deafening inside the corrugated iron building. 

The white men also had a recreation hut in their compound and among other items, it contained an old upright piano on which the more musical patients would amuse themselves and anyone else who cared to listen. One day, a Brisbane Radio station generously donated a new piano, which the whites quickly claimed for themselves. The old upright (previously donated by the Freemasons) was moved to the Aborigines’ mess hut where it quickly became an important part of their corroboree ceremonies.

However, it didn’t take the whites long to realise that the tone of their new piano was not a patch on the one they had given away to the Aborigines, so they took it upon themselves to arrange a swap. The Aborigines, however, were not fools and, realising that they had the better piano of the two, refused to come into the deal. To emphasise their determination, the Aborigines even produced spears, at which the whites backed off and let them keep their old upright. 

Post Script 1:

On January 8th, 1940 an army landing barge arrived at Peel Island, and all the Aboriginal patients, along with their goods, chattels, and pet dogs were loaded aboard. They were then taken to Brisbane from where they were taken by rail to Cardwell, and then by another barge to Fantome Island. It was a sad leave-taking because, over the years, the members of the Peel Island community – both white and black – had grown to have much more in common than the mere disease which had originally brought them all together. One of the patient’s last memory of them is of their waving black arms, barking dogs, and a hotch potch of their belongings in the open barge, including their most prized possession – the old upright piano which they had managed to keep from the white patients’ grasp! 

Post Script 2:

Later in the 1940s, a further indignity occurred to the whites when their own recreation hut mysteriously caught fire after some rowdy Christmas revelries. Their new piano was also consumed in the flames!

Post Script 3:

When a new recreation hall was built in 1947, another piano was procured (picture). After the lazaret was closed in 1959, the piano went missing. Its fate is still unknown.

The last piano in the rec hall at the lazaret (photo courtesy Terry Gwynn Jones – John Oxley Library)

(Extract from ‘Peel Island History, a Personal Quest‘ by Peter Ludlow)

People of Peel Island – 6 – Elbert (‘Bert’) Cobb

Bert Cobb was an American by birth but when he was aged nine came to Australia with his parents and two sisters. During World War I he became a flying officer with in the Royal Air Force in England during which he acquired a cultured accent. Bert returned to Australia after the war and 1922 records show that he held two pastoral leases in the Northern Territory. 

Before his admission to the Channel Island Leprosarium (off Darwin) in about 1940 he had worked as a manager for a gold mine for many years in the Northern Territory.  When Darwin was bombed, the Leprosarium patients were transferred to either Peel Island or Sydney’s Little Bay Leprosarium.  Bert came to Peel Island. He kept a loaded revolver in his hut to defend himself in case the Japanese arrived on the island.

For many years Bert Cobb had been troubled with painful eyes (iritis) and failing eyesight, finally going completely blind in 1946.  His leprosy also left him with disfigured hands, which were also devoid of feeling.  His nurse Rosemary Fielding observed that when he wanted to feel something he would do so with his lips.

At Peel, after his blindness, he was cared for by an orderly, Bill Fleetwood, a quiet man (unlike some of his alcoholic comrades), who also used to write letters for him.  Bert once told Rosemary that Bill was the perfect ‘gentleman’s gentleman’.  Another letter writer for Bert was Miss Howard, a social worker who used to visit the island every two weeks.  Bert trusted her and always kept the day free for her. 

He could be a charming man, especially with the ladies, but was also very intolerant.  He was a dreadful snob, supercilious, and scathing.  He had a growl of disgust, which could be very disconcerting. He was fussy about who came into his hut.  A well-educated and intelligent man, he loved people to read to him (after he went blind). 

The other patients respected him because he had been one of the founding members of the Patients’ Committee – formed by the patients to obtain better conditions.  He was a ‘stirrer’, and his education and legal knowledge were useful when it came to partitioning the government and newspapers and anyone else (they sent hundreds of letters all bashed out on an old typewriter).

Bert guarded his past very closely and did not want to be buried with any ceremony.  However, when he did die of toxaemia on May 30, 1959 (just a month before the Leprosarium on Peel Island closed down) someone did put an Australian flag over his coffin because he had served in WWI.

Peter Ludlow

From material supplied by Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) and Bert’s great nephew, Dudley M.Cobb

Nurse Rosemary Fielding’s painting of Bert Cobb

People of Peel Island – 5 – The Sisters of Mercy

Sr Mercia Mary, Sr M Conrad, Sr M Agnese Mater Hospital Private Pharmacy c1962

My first contact with Sister Mercia Mary was in 1986 while I was writing “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” – my history of the Lazaret (Leprosarium) that had been in operation in Moreton Bay between 1907 and 1959. In a pleasant and informative afternoon with her and fellow Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Conrad and Sister Mary St. Rita I was to learn of the Nun’s great compassion for their fellow humans.

Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) patients had been treated at the Mater Hospital and their blood smears had been processed in the Mater’s Pathology Department. It was through these contacts that the link to the patients at Peel Island was established. Not being content to treat these people as mere numbers in a waiting room or initials on a list of blood samples, the Sisters of Mercy led by Sister Mercia Mary made it their business to visit them on their island. This was a bold step because of the public neuroses that the stigma of Leprosy engendered.

The extent of such public neurosis can be gauged from Sister Mary St Rita’s account of a Hansen’s suspect in a crowded waiting room at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital in the late 1940s. The nodules had already become obvious on the man’s face when he entered the room, and one of the other patients thought he recognised the disease. Word quickly got around the waiting room, and the Sister was surprised to find when she called for the next patient that the crowded waiting room was suddenly empty – except for the Hansen’s patient who was then diagnosed and sent on to Peel Island.

For several years at Christmas, the Sisters of Mercy from the Mater Hospital visited the Lazaret on Peel Island and distributed presents. These included Sister Mercia Mary, and Sister Mary St Rita. Their main fear was not of contracting Hansen’s Disease but of getting their cloaks wet as they stepped off the boat.

I am told by one of the patients that they would often forsake lunch with the other staff on the verandah and spend the time talking with a patient, Bert Cobb, in his hut. Bert was a well educated man, an atheist, but always ready for a discussion. The Sisters of Mercy were always ready to oblige.

Most recently just before Christmas 2005, at a book-signing in the city for my re-release of “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” a former Mater Pathology Scientist told me more about Sister Mercia Mary’s devotion to the Hansen’s Disease patients. For the matter didn’t end in 1959 when the Peel Island Lazaret was closed down and the remaining dozen patients were transferred to Ward S12 at the South Brisbane Hospital (now the Princess Alexandra Hospital). It would have been easy to forget the patients now that they were no longer isolated, but each Christmas Sister Mercia Mary would still make up a Christmas Hamper for each of the Hansen’s patients and would personally deliver them to Ward S12. 

Another story about Sister Mercia Mary that I really like, and which illustrates her practical devotion to humanity through the philosophy of the Sisters of Mercy, is supplied by Ron Pope. In Mercia’s time before a Blood Bank had been set up, doctors were not nearly as readily available around any hospital as they are today. In order to fill a small part of that vacuum, Mercia trained in venipuncture and then could always be called upon to take blood from a donor. One of her early nursing associates recalls, with some humour, accompanying Mercia to Boggo Road jail with her trusty sterile flask, stirring rod and other paraphernalia, relieving a jail warder of the required amount of blood and bringing it back for a Mater patient!  

Pro Deo et Humanitate!

Peter Ludlow

March 2006

(Extract from Mater Scripts by Peter Ludlow)

Peel Island – White Leprosy Patients’Huts

The Peel Island Lazaret was the only purpose-built Lazaret in Australia: the others were modifications or add-ons to existing institutions e.g. at Dunwich, it was an add-on to the Benevolent Asylum; at Little Bay in Sydney as part of an infectious disease unit; at Fantome Island it was a former Lock Hspital.

This site plan shows the relative areas of Peel’s Lazaret. 

Notes to the plan’s labels: 

The Female Compound was for white females (one patient per cabin).

The Male Compound was for white males (one patient per cabin)

The Coloured Compound consisted of galvanised iron huts for the coloured male patients (four patients per cabin) and wooden huts similar to the white female huts (but accommodating six patients per cabin).

The Peel Island site plan as drawn up in the 1950s
Peel Island Lazaret – white male patients huts when it opened in 1907

Initially the male patients huts were constructed as a square wooden box like structure, but later on, a verandah was added to the design. The white femals huts were similar but with the addition of a kitchenette with a combustion stove.

Floor plan of the white male patients’ Hut
Floor plan of the white female patients’ Hut

The following aerial photo shows the Peel Island Lazaret institution as it appeared in the 1930s:

Lazaret from the air 1930s