In January 1940, a train carrying 49 people who were afflicted with leprosy arrived in North Queensland in a transfer from the Peel Island lazaret (or leprosarium) in Moreton Bay, to Fantome Island, near Palm Island.
|Fantome Island Lazaret, c.1940.|
Photo: Father Tom Dixon, in "From the Frontier: A Pictorial History of Queensland"
They were moved because medical and government officials of the day decided that Peel Island should only be used to treat “white” patients with leprosy, and chose Fantome Island as the location to isolate “coloured” patients suffering from the disease.
The majority of these “coloured” patients - as they were referred to - were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Island origin, although some were South Sea Islanders or Chinese.
There were already 25 Indigenous patients at the hospital when the Peel Island group arrived at Fantome Island, which meant the new lazaret had to cope with 74 patients, all before it was even fully completed.
Remarking on the transfer to Fantome Island, the State Government Minister for Health, Mr Hanlon, said that now that only white patients (26 of them) remained at Peel Island, he would be able to make big improvements to the lazaret there, “which obviously could not be undertaken while mixed races were there.”
The improvements intended for the Peel Island facility meant that, “all the minor privileges of civilised life – electric lights, reticulated water supply, radio, and other entertainment facilities on a broader scale – could be provided.”
Establishing a lazaret on Fantome Island was touted as an “important step in the investigation and treatment of leprosy” among the Indigenous population. At this time, Fantome Island was already in use as an isolation hospital for treating Indigenous patients with sexually transmitted illnesses. The leprosarium was to be located on the opposite side of the island.
Queensland Director-General of Health and Medical Services, Sir Raphael Cilento’s official view was that as the majority of the “coloured lepers” from Peel Island were originally from the North Queensland region, it was in their own best interests to be moved to Fantome Island, nearer to their “tribal origins”.
In truth, Cilento believed that moving the Indigenous “lepers” to Fantome Island would save the government money. At Peel Island the cost of caring for a leprosy patient was £70 per annum, whereas Cilento anticipated that patients at Fantome Island would only cost the government £12 - £15 per annum.
In February 1940, four nuns from the Catholic missionary order of Our Lady Help of Christians arrived in Townsville by train, en route to Fantome Island, to commence work at the lazaret. Mother Peter, Sisters Agnes, Catherine and Bernadette spent several months at Peel Island undergoing training in the treatment of leprosy before travelling north.
|Fantome Island, no date.|
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
The Peel Island patients arrived at Fantome Island with a police escort and were also accompanied by Matron O’Brien from the Peel Island lazaret. Matron O’Brien was appalled at the poor quality of the food provided to the patients when they arrived, and complained in a report about her trip that the patients had not been fed any green vegetables during her month-long stay.
This does not seem to have been a concern to the Superintendent, Mr F.H. Julian though, and poor nutrition may well have contributed to the 14 deaths that occurred at the lazaret on Fantome Island by the end of 1940.