The Fantome Island Lazaret, in the Palm Island Group off the coast of Townsville, was established for the detention and treatment of non-European suffers from Hansen's Disease, more commonly known as leprosy. Run by the Queensland government, it opened in 1939 and closed in 1973.
[Taken from 'Fantome Island Lock Hospital and Lazaret Sites', Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, 2013]
The Fantome Island Lazaret (or leprosarium) was run by the State government and operated between 1939 and 1973. The State government policy for dealing with Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander people who suffered from sexually transmitted infection (STI) and leprosy, was to isolate them from the rest of society. Aboriginal people were removed to Fantome Island under the Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 that allowed the government to set up reserves to detain Aborigines.
By 21 September 1939, six of the twelve huts erected were occupied by Hansen's lepers from North Queensland. On 10 January 1940, 49 Aboriginal patients from Peel Island arrived on Fantome Island to join the 26 local patients already there.
The government Director-General of Health and Medical Services within Queensland's Department of Health and Home Affairs, Raphael Cilento, suggested using nuns from the nursing branch of a religious body to overcome the difficulty of finding staff willing to work with Hansen's disease or STI patients. On 1 March 1940 four nuns of the Order of Our Lady Help of Christians (OLHC) arrived on Fantome Island to assist with the medical treatment of patients. In December 1944, seven nuns of the Order of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (FMM) replaced the OLHC nuns on Fantome Island.
European staff accommodation was segregated from that of non-European staff and patients and unmarried male and female patients were housed separately.
Although the residents on the island endeavoured to be self-sufficient during the 1940s, external supplies of food were required. Many complaints related to the quality of food supplied to patients and staff were received by government health authorities. The lack of proper nutrition in conjunction with inferior medical treatment was thought to contribute to the high mortality rate on the island.
In September 1941 Fantome Island was divided into two reserves. The northern portion became a reserve for lepers; while the central and southern portions became a reserve for Aborigines suffering from venereal disease. The Fantome Island Lock Hospital closed on 31 August 1945 and 13 patients were transferred to the existing hospital on Palm Island.
The introduction in the 1940s of Sulphone drugs to treat Hansen's Disease reduced the number of deaths and led to an increase in the number of patients discharged. However, new patients were still sent to the island. In 1945 Joe Eggmolesse was diagnosed with leprosy at the age of seven. He was taken from his family under police escort and transported to Fantome Island where he was incarcerated for the next ten years.
The improvement in medical treatment did not extend to other areas in the lives of patients. During the 1950s criticism of the management of Fantome Island increased, with organisations such as the Australian Leprosy Campaign Committee and the Fantome Island Relatives and Friends Association lobbying the government for improved rights and conditions at the lazaret and calling for the end of isolation of patients.
Controversy surrounding the administration of the Fantome Island Lazaret continued throughout the 1960s and up until its closure on 3 August 1973. In mid-August 1973, the complex was burnt by the Health Department.
Remains of the Lock Hospital and Lazaret are still visible on the island.
Sources used to compile this entry: 'Fantome Island Lock Hospital and Lazaret Sites (former)', in Queensland Heritage Register, Department of Environment and Heritage Protection (EHP), 30 June 2015, https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602798.
Prepared by: Lee Butterworth
Created: 13 December 2013, Last modified: 18 July 2018