Fantome Island LazaretPrint Page Print this page

The monument commemorates the patients and people who worked at the Fantome Island Lazaret between 1939 and 1973.

The search for a lazaret site in northern Queensland followed a succession of other attempts to segregate Hansen's disease (leprosy) patients. The first case of Hansen's disease in Queensland had been discovered in 1855. In 1889 a leprosarium was established on Dayman Island in the Torres Strait for the reception of non-European lepers, principally Chinese people. In conjunction with ongoing Australian fears about non-European migrants, and a perceived association of Hansen's disease with non-Europeans, Chinese and South Sea Islander people in particular were blamed as a source of the disease. The Dayman Island facility closed after the enacting of the Leprosy Act 1892, which was prompted by the diagnosis of the first European with Hansen's disease in 1891.

The 1892 Act, among other things, allowed the establishment of lazarets, required the reporting of Hansen's disease where it was suspected and permitted the removal of a patient to, and detention in, a lazaret.  By January 1939 several suspected Hansen's disease cases from Thursday Island and Cooktown had been sent to Fantome Island, while further cases were present on Palm Island. In March 1939 the farm village area of Fantome Island was chosen for the lazaret site. 

The proposed lazaret was intended to include a laboratory with offices and wards, quarters for four sisters of a religious sisterhood, a European wardsman and Palm Island staff, plus huts for 100 patients, with kitchen, store and dining buildings and lavatories. By 21 September 1939 twelve huts were erected, with six already occupied by Hansen's disease patients from North Queensland.

In December 1939 four young nuns of the Australian Missionary Order (Our Lady Help of Christians) in New South Wales had arrived at Peel Island, and would later accompany ‘black' patients from that location to Fantome Island.   

The Order of Our Lady Help of Christians (OLHC) had been established in 1931, and had already undertaken work on Palm Island. The nuns sent to Fantome Island comprised Mother Peter, and Sisters Agnes, Bernadette and Catherine, who undertook some medical training in Sydney, before receiving training in the treatment of Hansen's disease on Peel Island.  On 10 January 1940, 49 Aboriginal patients from Peel Island arrived on Fantome Island to join the 26 local patients already there. They were accompanied by three policemen, plus a wardsman and Matron Avonia O'Brien from Peel Island.

Along with efforts to meet the patients' physical needs, attempts were made to meet their spiritual needs. Foundations were laid for a weatherboard and fibro cement Anglican Church at the lazaret in October 1940, and St Luke`s opened in January 1941. A Catholic Church and presbytery at the lazaret, first approved in 1940, were proceeded with from mid-1944. During April 1941 houses for married couples employed at the lazaret were under construction.  The issue of the marriage of patients at the lazaret was discussed in October 1944, and it was stated that any babies would need to be immediately removed from their mothers to avoid infection

Due to internal church politics, the OLHC nuns on Fantome were replaced in December 1944, when seven nuns of the Order of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary arrived, six from Canada and one from Malta. Two were qualified nursing sisters and one a pharmacist. Two of the nuns were trained in dentistry during 1945.

After World War Two there was a burst of building activity at the Fantome Island Lazaret. In 1946 funds were allocated for a septic system and additions to the nuns' quarters, a septic system for the hospital, a new school, new island telephone system and a new well. By October 1946 a visitors' quarters was under construction and another 10,000 gallon water tank was provided by June 1947. By June 1948 radio communication with Palm Island was installed, along with a 16 mm movie plant for entertainment of the patients.

Although attempts to improve patient accommodation on Fantome Island failed, medical advances were occurring in the treatment of Hansen's disease. The drug sulphetrone was introduced at Fantome Island in December 1948 in the treatment of 40 selected cases. Sulphone drugs such as dapsone and sulphetrone had side effects including anaemia, gastro-intestinal complaints and ‘dapsone syndrome' which could include dizziness, nausea, swelling of limbs and face, nodules under the skin and shivering attacks.

There were 63 patients on Fantome Island in October 1949, and with the introduction of the new treatments, the death rate fell and discharges increased.

About the same time that Hansen's disease patients were finally receiving effective treatment, there was increased public pressure to end the policy of isolation. Fantome Island was singled out by the Australian Leprosy Campaign Committee. Another organisation critical of the treatment of Fantome Island patients was the Relatives and Friends Association. Dedicated to improving the rights and conditions of patients with Hansen's disease, the Association became particularly active around 1950, donating packages of food, toys and other items to the patients, writing letters to the Queensland Government demanding better lazaret conditions or an end to isolation.

By 1958 it was accepted that Hansen's disease patients could be released from isolation without risk to the community after three consecutive negative monthly smears. The European patients at Peel Island were moved to the new Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane in 1959; yet 22 patients remained on Fantome Island. Although the success of Sulphetrone drugs in treating Hansen's disease led to hopes in the early 1950s that Fantome Island could close, this did not occur until 1973.

On 5 October 1970 the Queensland cabinet decided to close the Fantome Island facility once there was alternative accommodation on Palm Island. It was argued that Fantome Island had outlived its usefulness, as continuous dosage with sulphone drugs for three months or more rendered the vast majority of Hansen's disease patients non-infectious.

The lazaret closed on 3 August 1973 and in mid August the complex was burnt by the Health Department.

Note: Lazaret is a hospital treating contagious disease. 


Address:Lazaret Cemetery, Fantome Island
GPS Coordinates:Lat: -18.662292
Long: 146.510659
Note: GPS Coordinates are approximate.
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Monument Type:Monument
Monument Theme:Disaster
Actual Event Start Date:20-March-1939
Actual Event End Date:03-August-1973


Actual Monument Dedication Date:Monday 31st May, 2010
Front Inscription

In memory of the patients, Sisters of Our Lady Mary of Christians, Francisan Missionaries of Mary and staff who lived and worked on Fantome Island, and in respect for those who died here from 1939 - 1973

Erected on the original site of the Mary Immaculate Church on Monday 31st May 2010 by Bishop Michael Putney

Source: MA
Monument details supplied by Monument Australia - www.monumentaustralia.org.au
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