A simple cover can lead one on a voyage of discovery, without leaving the computer. This cover was seen on eBay auctions and immediately the ancient disease of leprosy sprang to mind. The cover was addressed to the “Sister in Charge/ Gemo Island” and was posted with two Australian stamps, the purple 1d Princess Elizabeth and the ½d orange Roo, postmarked PORT MORESBY/ 23 JE 48/ PAPUA NEW GUINEA (Figures 1 & 2).

From 1946 and prior to the issue of the first pictorial set of the combined Territory of Papua & New Guinea (PNG) on 30 October 1952, Australian stamps of the period were used as postage in the Territory. Australian definitives were most commonly used in this interim period, but 3 Australian commemorative issues of 1945-46 were also used (‘Duke and Duchess of Gloucester’, ‘Peace’, and ‘Thomas Mitchell’).

Port Moresby is situated at latitude 9S and longitude 147E and Gemo Island has exactly the same co-ordinates. The proof that Gemo Island was a leprosarium (alternative term, lazaret) in 1942 was relatively easy to confirm, but details of the Island’s use for this purpose were remarkably scanty.

“Prior to 1974, persons with leprosy were sent to leper colonies at Raihu in West Sepik, Togoba in the Western Highlands, Gemo Island in the National Capital District, New Hanover in New Ireland and Yagaum and Daigul in Madang. With the integration of leprosy control in the general health services after 1974 and the later use of multi-drug therapy, the Government was able to declare in 2000 that PNG was ‘leprosy-free’.”

The breakthrough in gaining information concerning Gemo Island came when I emailed Betty Cunnington who was quoted in the previous paragraph. She was the Country Director in PNG for the Leprosy Mission, and she had worked in PNG for 29 years where her main role was in training communities and health workers in preventing and treating leprosy, and its resulting disabilities.

Further excerpts from her reply were: “I came to PNG in July 1974 and spent the first 6-8 weeks in Port Moresby….for a short time lived on Gemo Island. I do not remember there being many patients…I did assist in the closure of the hospital in 1974. The Island was not a long way from the mainland…..regarding the ‘eradication of leprosy’ in PNG, No! Not yet. The World Health Organization criteria for the ‘elimination’ of leprosy is a prevalence of less than 1 in 10,000 and this was achieved at a PNG national level in 2000. BUT, the statistics for 2002 have shown an increase in the prevalence which is now 1.2 per 10,000. Figures from Bougainville (at 4 per 10,000) are not included in the national figures as they were not involved in the national elimination program due to the ‘crisis’ that occurred in that province in the 90’s decade.”

I was directed by Betty to Myra Macey (now of Tasmania) who gave additional information: “In 1937 Gemo Island was the site chosen to isolate villagers suffering from leprosy and tuberculosis. I worked in PNG from 1960 to 1982 mainly as a nursing sister. Gemo Island is a narrow rocky hump, grass covered in the wet season with few trees and shrubs, about 1.5 km long and 3 km to walk around, in the harbour 3km off-shore from Port Moresby. A small Government launch made the half hour journey twice weekly when I first arrived, but by the time of closure in 1974 we had about 4 trips daily.” (Figure 3).

“Medical work in the area was undertaken by the London Missionary Society, Nursing sister Constance Fairhall started the work, and with a small team of medical orderlies and patients, they lived on the Island. It was a successful venture, but in those days the recovery rate was low. In 1941 they were evacuated and the Island was used by the Allied Forces for duration of WW2.”

“In 1946, Siter Fairhall returned, gathered up patients and staff, and the good work continued till progress in the management of both diseases meant that isolation was no longer necessary. A second more permanent nursing sister, Rachel Leighton from Hobart was at Gemo from 1946 to 1960, and she was the Sister in Charge when the letter was mailed in June 1948. The survival of the letter mailed from Port Moresby in June 48 is intriguing (as is the fact that it was mailed at all). Very local post of course, it could have been from the Government Health Department, who supplied and financed the medical work.”

“Back to the Gemo theme – I started work there in 1960 and remained associated with the work till 1974, when I was instrumental in closing it. I then joined the Health Department, based in Port Moresby, but travelling throughout PNG assisting general health services to manage both diseases. To-day early diagnosis and multi-drug therapy shortens treatment, so both diseases can be cured. Leprosy still has the problem of nerve damage and deformities.”

“Int the 1950’s, the patients averaged 250-300, in the 1960’s about 200 and the 1970’s 150-200. Staff (many of them were patients themselves) was 8-10 orderlies with similar numbers of artisans with 2 expatriate Sisters and 2 Samoan nurses. The 1960’s brought short-term UK and Queensland physiotherapists and laboratory technicians etc.”

Thus a fairly plain looking envelope was the background to an exciting story, almost entirely derived from devoted nurses’ experiences with 2 deadly diseases on a rocky coral Island. Gemo is now named Hanudamava Island as shown by an arrow on a map of Port Moresby and its surrounds (Figure 4).

This paper could not have been written without the unstinting help of the nurses quoted, particularly Myra Macey who is writing a book on her experiences with leprosy on Gemo Island. A version of this paper was published in the N.S.W. Philatelist February 2004, Volume 26, No. 1, pages 1-3.

Categories: Health Sciences, Islands