Peter ludlow - author historian


Peel island history - a personal quest

Peel Island has continued to fascinate me since 1977 – the year I began my researches into its history. All my Moreton Bay books have contained Peel information as it became available – a very slow leaching indeed! Now for the first time I have begun to collect  ‘everything Peel’ into a single volume. As the work progresses I’ll publish each part for one week on this page until the series builds into a complete book (to be published in hard copy and ebook formats of PDF, ePub, and MOBI).

‘Peel Island History – A Personal Quest’ will collect all the material I’ve written about Peel Island in the last 36 years.

Here is this week’s offering:

Part 53

The day's work at the surgery usually began at 4 am when the Primus (kerosene) stoves were lit to sterilize the syringes and instruments. There was little job demarcation and Dr Reye on occasions even helped to make the beds. In all, it was a real team effort. Nobody thought of claiming overtime, for it was job interest which provided the main incentive.21 For night surgery, electric power was supplied by two 6 volt car batteries which Dr Reye had removed from "Maroomba".  The idea was that while one was in use, the other would be sent to Dunwich for recharging.


As well as his regular medical activities, performing emergency dental work was also one of Dr Reye's duties, and he became adept at using the Zinc oxide‑Clove Oil dressing as a temporary tooth filling until the patient could be sent to Brisbane. It wasn't until well after the war that regular dental checks were performed on the patients at Peel by a visiting dentist.

Because of the labour and material shortages resulting from the war effort, much needed rebuilding at Peel had been further postponed. However, two building projects were undertaken which did much to aid the comfort of both staff and patients at the lazaret. In 1945 alterations to the single roomed treatment clinic eased its overcrowded conditions and on November 3rd of the same year, a new Recreation Hall was opened for both patient and staff use. Soon to follow were more improvements: a new bathroom in the male section, the building of the power house in anticipation of electricity generators being installed, and new patients' houses were constructed and others repaired.

Many of the patients were unable to write because they had only stumps for fingers, so in 1946 on each second Sunday, a lady correspondent began to visit the island whereupon she would write down letters as dictated to her. Needless to stay, her services were much sought after. Many outside organizations continued to make donations to the patients: the Brisbane City Mission donated a piano accordion, the Salvation Army gave band instruments, and the Country Women's Association supplied pianola rolls. As well as the Salvos, the Brisbane Municipal Band and Monty Bloom's Concert Party also visited Peel to entertain. Wood carving, too, provided a satisfying means of relaxation as well as exercise for some of the patients.22


The Rec Hall piano, Peel Island Lazaret

Electricity was installed in 1947, and 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.

It would be incorrect to ascribe all these improvements to the arrival of Dr Reye at Peel, but his influence certainly helped. Although he was Medical Officer, his authority did not extend beyond the medical sphere, the administration of the non-medical life at Peel still coming under the jurisdiction of Superintendent Mahoney. As previously stated, Frank Mahoney's problems had rendered him ineffectual, and much of his authority had been taken over by Matron Ahlberg.  Indeed, her influence had become so powerful that she was to clash often with Dr Reye in policy matters regarding the island. Dr Reye did have one important means of "getting his way" and this was by threat of resignation. He was to use this three times before he declined to withdraw it. But he was able to achieve much before this eventually took place.

In a further elaboration on the nature of Peel's administrative clashes, Dr Reye points out that both Marie Ahlberg and Frank Mahoney each had the welfare of the patients and their respective staff very much at heart. Differences between Matron, Superintendent, and Medical Officer were more matters of how best to fulfil these aims, than of personal rivalry or hostility. The nature of the institution did not help. Matron and Superintendent were each left alone in charge while the other was on leave in lieu of weekends (ie. about a week at a time) or on annual leave. In 1948/49 the Medical Officer was absent for six weeks at a time on Fantome Island and it was only late in 1949 that another MO (Dr Marion Macken) was seconded from her duties with the Tuberculosis Survey to look after medical matters on Peel during such absences.

One other name should be mentioned with those who controlled the affairs of Peel Island at this time, and this was Dr Abraham Fryberg (later to be knighted Sir Abraham Fryberg). He had joined the Queensland Health Department in 1936 as a State Health Officer, and a part of his duties was to visit the Peel Island leprosarium twice a week. With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Dr Fryberg enlisted, and spent the next five years in the army: three years overseas, and two years at Headquarters. In 1945, in order to relieve Sir Raphael Cilento who wished to travel overseas, Dr Fryberg was released by the army to continue his position as State Health Officer. In 1946 Sir Raphael Cilento resigned as Director General of Health and Medical Services in Queensland, and his Deputy, Dr Coffey, was appointed to the position. Upon the latter's retirement in 1947, Dr Fryberg became Director General.

Because of his previous association with Peel as a State Health Officer, Dr Fryberg possessed an intimate knowledge of the special problems of the lazaret and its inmates. Although his acknowledged loyalty was first and foremost to his employer, the Queensland Government, and although he was generally regarded as a difficult negotiator, nevertheless, his sympathetic attitude was instrumental to the Health Department's granting of the many requested improvements which took place at Peel in its post war years.

Next update: Part 54