More like this

The history of Queensland’s reaction to leprosy reveals a disturbing trend in the way Australia treats those it identifies as ‘Other’.


Huts constructed for patients on Peel Island, 1907

My second trip to Peel Island, a small island east of Brisbane, in Moreton Bay, is nothing like my first. The first time, a few years ago, was in summer. I came with my family in our tinny to swim, snorkel, and explore the stunning rock formations along Horseshoe Bay, on the island’s southern border. On that day, I didn’t venture beyond the arc of white sand and wall of she-oaks into the heart of the island. And I never knew about the lazaret – a leprosarium – tucked away on the western side.

I first learnt about this lazaret from Going to the Gums, published by The Friends of Peel Island Association (FOPIA). It describes the experiences of Noel Agnew, who was sent there in 1907 when he was eleven years old, and Charles Hewitt, sent in 1920 when he was twelve. Neither boy left the island; Noel died when he was forty-one and Charles at twenty-nine.

Over a fifty-two year period, approximately 500 people, including children, adolescents and adults, were forcibly removed from mainland Queensland to Peel Island, all incarcerated at the purpose-built lazaret. Their crime? They had contracted Hansen’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy.

The island is one of more than 300 in Moreton Bay. Renamed Teerk Roo Ra National Park in 2007, it is jointly managed by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and its traditional custodians, the Quandamooka people. Accessible only by private vessel, the lazaret is closed to the public. After learning about the people banished there, my view of Peel had changed; it was no longer just a playground for boaties. I was eager to return and explore it anew. So, when the opportunity arose to join a group from the FOPIA who were visiting for the day, I jumped at the chance.

It is overcast and drizzling the morning we set off from Cleveland. On board the boat, our guide serves us tea and biscuits. We cradle warm mugs as the boat judders across the water and I soon move to the stern and watch the spumy wake.

The fear of contamination from leprosy patients – ‘inmates’ as they were called then – was so great they were not permitted to board the supply boat that transported them to the island. Instead they were towed behind in a dinghy for the hour-long journey, arriving drenched in saltwater. For patients from towns north or west of Brisbane, this was the last leg of a horrendous journey. They were segregated from the moment of departure, transported to the city via cattle trains or locked in a wooden box and brought down the coast on the deck of a steamer.

After our boat has dropped anchor, we wade through ankle-deep water to the beach where the wooden boxes had been burned after the patient was released. We follow a narrow red dirt track into rainforest. Water trickles off leaves and grey-green light filters through the canopy above us.

The island has a thriving birdlife: Noel Agnew observed and recorded many species and two of his inventories were published in the journal Emu. Some entries are brief: ‘Circus assimilis. Spotted Swamp Hawk […] A resident shot one of these birds, 28/6/13, and brought him to me for identification; one pair noted.’ Other entries are extensive, documenting in minute detail nest preparation, egg laying and hatching, and the growth and feeding of the chicks until they leave the nest.

The lazaret appears suddenly, at the end of the path. When it was still in operation, it was crowded with weatherboard buildings: cottages for staff, a recreation hall and tiny individual huts for European patients containing a bed, chest of drawers, table and chair.

Indigenous and South Sea Islander patients slept in corrugated-iron sheds with dirt, and later, concrete floors. These were designed for two people per shed but often housed three or four. (Indigenous and Islander patients were removed from Peel Island in 1940 and sent to a lazaret on Fantome Island, off the coast of Townsville.)

A few sheds are still standing. We duck our heads to enter through a low doorway. Two cottages, the recreation hall and some of the timber huts have been fully restored. The cottages are homely but the huts are austere: clearly not designed to comfort the sick.

Noel Agnew’s family lived at Dunwich, on nearby Stradbroke Island. His mother spent hours sitting under a gum tree, looking across the water to where her son was incarcerated. Charles Hewitt, in his last years, was blind and dependent on other patients for assistance. His father appealed to the Health Minister to allow him to pay for a personal nurse for Charles, but his request was denied.

At least 200 people died on Peel Island, including those who committed suicide.

I wander around the grounds. Pathways are overgrown and decaying huts have been reclaimed by trees. The place is strewn with the detritus of the lazaret: enamel jugs, washstands, bed frames, and hundreds of batteries and beer bottles. The natural beauty of the island is magnificent, but the lazaret evokes sadness and desolation. Some patients tried to escape but were swiftly returned. At least 200 people died on Peel Island, including those who committed suicide.

Was this mandatory detention necessary? In 1867, forty years before the Peel Island lazaret opened, the Royal College of Physicians released a report stating that forced confinement of leprosy patients was medieval and backward, and segregation unnecessary. In 1873, however, Norwegian scientist Armauer Hansen identified the cause of the disease, a bacillus, Microbacterium leprae, which reignited fears about contagion. At the First International Leprosy Congress held in Berlin in 1897, received medical opinion was revised and patients were again considered dangerous and required confinement.


Leprosy came to Queensland with the influx of Chinese workers during the 1850s gold rush. The disease quickly spread to the Indigenous and South Sea Islander population and these early sufferers – ‘coloured lepers’, including Chinese immigrants – were either sent home or, during the 1880s, transported to Dayman Island in the Torres Straits, where they were left to fend for themselves with only the most basic supplies. In 1891, twelve white men were diagnosed with the disease, prompting the government to pass the leprosy bill in 1892, which legalised mandatory detention of sufferers. (The first white woman was diagnosed in 1895.)

Patients were detained at Dunwich until the lazaret on Peel Island opened in 1907. Coincidentally, in this same year, world experts in the treatment of leprosy once again claimed that, as well as being inhumane, isolation did not reduce the number of people inflicted with the disease. But Queensland authorities, determined to develop a new, healthy colony, ignored this.

When left untreated, leprosy can cause skin lesions, blindness and the contraction and deformity of limbs. In advanced cases, facial features become distorted: skin thickens, the nose collapses, nodules erupt on the skin.

The government claimed they were being considerate of the sensibilities of the leprosy patients by keeping them away from prying eyes, but their detention on Peel Island was more about ‘protecting’ the community from the unsightliness of the disease than from concern for the patients or for contamination.

‘Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning – that meaning being invariably a moralistic one,’ writes Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor (1978). Leprosy, through its biblical (mis)representation, has long been tied to immorality.

It is now clear that the skin disease described in the Bible was not leprosy, but the belief that sufferers were unclean and brought the disease upon themselves has been hard to shake. Indeed, the term ‘leper’ remains a pejorative one to this day.

Not all Queenslanders supported compulsory detention. Brisbane surgeon, Dr W. Lyons, stated in April 1892, ‘To the credit of humanity, be it said, there are other lands than Queensland where the leper is not shunned and hunted down like a wild beast, but is well housed, well fed, and tenderly cared for by a beneficent government.’

In the 1920s, a number of doctors opposed segregation of leprosy patients. Dr Molesworth, a skin specialist from Sydney University, was reported as saying, ‘lepers should be treated, not like criminals, but as private individuals, with the right to live in their own homes, and the right to have hospital treatment like any other sick person.’ Another health officer, Dr Taylor, criticised ‘the official attitude in Queensland’ as ‘one calculated to augment rather than mitigate the horror in which the disease is held by the general public.’

While sulphone drugs were introduced in 1946, providing an effective cure to all but the most advanced cases, the lazaret continued to operate and receive new patients. Dr Molesworth voiced his objection in the Queensland Times, explaining that leprosy was treatable and the disease far less infectious than tuberculosis or syphilis.

‘In spite of that,’ he wrote, ‘people with those two diseases are allowed to wander about whilst the poor unfortunate lepers are kept locked up…We pride ourselves on being civilised, yet our treatment of lepers is barbaric…[and] centuries behind the time…. It is not humanitarian, it is not intelligent, it is archaic.’

In 1951, the National Health and Medical Research Centre recommended the release of patients into the community, but once again this was rejected by the government.

June Berthelsen was thirty-six when she was sent to the island in 1956. In her memoir, The Lost Years (1996), she recalls seeing her three young children for the first time after a year at the lazaret. The children were not allowed ashore and June was allowed no further than the jetty. She writes:

We smiled and waved at each other until it was time for them to go. What had been the point of the visit? It only served to heighten my anger and frustration, and my longing to hold my little children in my arms and to tell them that I loved them. The look of hurt, and rejection in [her oldest son’s] eyes haunted me in my nightmares for years.

June was ‘paroled’ from the lazaret two years later, after having been cleared of the disease but it took many years for her to overcome the emotional trauma of separation from her family and community.

The Peel Island lazaret was finally closed in 1959, thirteen years after a cure for leprosy had been discovered. And while Australia played a prominent role in the development of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, the continued detention of patients with leprosy on Peel and Fantome Islands, the evidence against the benefits of such segregation, as well as the availability of a cure, placed Australia in breach of this Charter.


Our guide tells us about a patient called Rose, one of the first sent to the lazaret and a ‘trouble-maker,’ who wrote many letters of protest to the government and insisted on better living conditions. She died on the island in 1912. We look at her headstone – one of only a few in the cemetery; most patients were buried in unmarked graves.

‘What crime are we supposed to be guilty of? … If these rules continue there will be more die of broken hearts than leprosy.’

In Going to the Gums, there is a quote from a letter Rose wrote to the Queensland Home Secretary. ‘Why are we being treated in such a harsh manner?’ she asks. ‘What crime are we supposed to be guilty of? … If these rules continue there will be more die of broken hearts than leprosy.’

I sit at the edge of the lazaret, overlooking the Bay, to eat my lunch. The water below ripples silver; the remoteness of the island is peaceful, relaxing. But for those forced to live here indefinitely, it was far from idyllic. Patients complained of boredom and loneliness.

Fear prevents us from behaving rationally. In its fifty- two years of operation, no staff member at Peel Island (or any other lazaret in Australia) was ever infected. Despite this, public fear of leprosy – fuelled, initially, by the authorities’ actions – lasted well beyond the life of the lazaret. I try to imagine the sense of abandonment and injustice the patients felt, and my heart aches.

As we head back to where our boat is moored, I am thankful this callous slice of history has passed, but think about that other form of indefinite detention that persists in our country today.

The Human Rights Commission’s website states that, as of April 2016, there were 2028 people being held in closed immigration detention facilities, including facilities in Australia and Nauru. One hundred and four of these detainees are children. The Australian government is in breach of Australia’s human rights obligations, just as the Queensland government had been all those years ago. And just as it had been with the leprosy patients, there appears to be no fixed term to this confinement, nor recourse to a legal challenge.


We pile into the boat and once again I move to the stern, to silently farewell Noel and Charles and all the others who never made it off the island.

In 1926, Dr Molesworth was quoted in The Brisbane Courier as saying people with leprosy, ‘are not people who should be forced to live away from the world.’ Perhaps the memories of the Peel Island lazaret provide an opportunity for us to re-think and re-shape our treatment of ‘Others,’ and to develop a more compassionate approach.