Elkington’s friend Cilento: Peel Island Lazaret and systematic racial oppression in public health

Sir Raphael Cilento, Chief Quarantine Officer of Brisbane, was a good friend of Dr John Simeon Colebrook Elkington and succeeded his position in 1928 (Parsons, 2010, p. 88). The two medical men shared the ideology of racial segregation and hierarchisation at quarantine stations and used their authority utmost to institutionalise it. Cilento’s racist ideas about public health were given administrative, architectural and medical expressions on the Peel Island Lazaret near Brisbane, where the sexes and the races were strictly segregated; and where the physical distance between the accommodation for “whites” and the accommodation for “coloureds” was deliberately significant in order to impose a social regime of racial hierarchy based on white supremacy. By doing this, the distance between Europeans and non-Europeans took on a double meaning operating on two levels: spatial as well as social, with the former reinforcing the latter. European Australians had greater socio-cultural value than “coloured” Australians such as Aboriginals, Chinese and Pacific Islanders, and this differentiation in worth impacted on the experience of being in quarantine and in treatment at a lazaret such as Peel Island. In fact until it was made a lazaret in 1907, Peel Island had been used as a quarantine station since 1873. Despite the site’s rich Aboriginal history, once it became a quarantine ground, the Quandamooka people of Moreton Bay was denied their traditional access. Queensland law at the time took away the fundamental rights of Indigenous Australians to move and to settle as they pleased (Juckes et al, 2013, pp. 531-532).

Chief Quarantine Officer Cilento can be considered extraordinarily racist for his enthusiastic leadership in pre-dawn police raids on Aboriginal camps suspected of harbouring sufferers and contacts of leprosy (Hansen’s disease), putting most energy into this “public health” campaign during 1931 (Parsons, 2010, pp. 88-89). The interwar period was a time of consolidation for racialisation of medicine and public health, which aligned them more with ideology rather than science. Such was the colonial legacy of medicine in Australia.


Juckes, Emily, Kelly Greenop and Zbigniew Jarzab, Isolation and segregation: an intercultural analysis of the Peel Island Lazaret. In Alexandra Brown and Andrew Leach (Ed), Proceedings of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, Volume 2 (Gold Coast, Queensland: SAHANZ, 2013), pp. 529-542.

Parsons, Meg, Defining disease, segregating race: Sir Ralph Cilento, Aboriginal health and leprosy management in twentieth century Queensland. Aboriginal History, 34, 2010, pp. 85-114.


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