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For thousands of years, a diagnosis of leprosy meant a life sentence of social isolation. People afflicted with the condition now known as Hansen’s disease were typically taken from their families, treated with prejudice and cruelly exiled into a life time of quarantine.

In America, patients were sent to separate settlements but were deprived of fundamental civil liberties: to work, to move freely and see loved ones, to vote, to raise families of their own. Some who bore children had their babies forcibly removed.

One such colony was written about so eloquently by James Mitchener in his fine book " Hawaii. "


An elevated view of the leprosy colony in Kalaupapa, circa 1920. The National Library of Medicine

Leprosy entered Australia in the 1800's when the gold rushes saw waves of new migrants arrive, hoping to make it rich. By the end of the 19th century, sufferers of leprosy were sent to quarantine centres throughout the continent and removed from mainstream society.

 Many were in rather pleasant places, but if you are not allowed to leave, it matters not how many palm trees there are or how nice the weather is. It is still a prison if you are not free to leave.

She never got to say goodbye to her daughters. She thought she would be gone two days.

Without ever receiving a clear diagnosis of leprosy, she was forced to spend 12 years on Peel Island — a leper colony off the south-east Queensland coast.

Leprosy, the feared and then-untreatable disease, arrived in Australia in the 1800s, causing panic among the population and prompting the government to pass the Leprosy Act 1892.

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The family gathered at her home and spoke in hushed tones. She was not privy to the conversation about her fate.

“I noticed when I got back home, Mum and Dad were there and nobody was talking to me,” Phyllis recalls.

“They were talking around the sides. They wouldn’t tell me…” she trails off.

“Albert came up to see me... I’m sitting on the verandah stairs. He’s crying and I’m crying.

“I said ‘You know Albert, I think there’s something seriously wrong with me.’

“But they were making arrangements for me to go in a plane from Townsville.

“The day I left, I didn’t say goodbye to the girls.

“I thought I’d be back in a day or two. And I was going to take them to school.

“That night, on a Sunday night, dear granddad Ebbage comes, and there were relations all around the room.

“And the next thing, granddad said: ‘You got it.'

“'No', I said - 'No! No! No!'

“I couldn’t say no more.”

Phyllis was flown to Brisbane and taken on the 11-kilometre boat journey to Peel Island, which sits off the coast of Cleveland. The journey took more than four hours.

“I could see buildings but I didn’t know what they were for,” she says.

“And then they showed me where to go to my hut.

“It was a terrible place.

“It was so primitive. Oh god, there was nothing. And it was only fortnightly visits.''

Many of the men and women transported to Peel Island never saw their families again because the leprosy sufferers were disowned out of shame. Some patients died on the island.

“I didn’t have the right treatment then. I tried a lot of treatments there, nearly killed me,'' she says.

“Penicillin — I had three lots of it and nearly died.

“One night, I was going down to get another lot of it. I nearly collapsed on the way. So I wouldn’t take it no more. I had taken too much.”

The legislation allowed authorities to remove anyone who was suspected of or diagnosed with leprosy, including taking children from school without their parents’ knowledge or permission. 

 Phyllis Ebbage reunited with her daughters Verree and Desley. Photo: State Library of Queensland

By the 1940s, after a cure was found and it was realised that most of the population had a natural immunity to it, other countries began to abolish compulsory isolation policies.

In the 1980's a disease emerged that was to ravage the Gay community. It was referred to as acquired immune deficiency syndrome and it was and still is referred to as AIDS. One of the most famous victims of this was Freddie Mercury, lead singer in the rock group " Queen." To say that he lived his life with gay abandon would probably be an understatement.

When AIDs emerged, society had moved away from treating people as lepers and laws were passed to protect the rights of those who were " afflicted. " The history of the HIV and AIDS epidemic began in illness, fear and death as the world faced a new and unknown virus.  In July 1990 , the USA enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which prohibits discrimination against those with disabilities including people living with HIV.

It seems so long ago that we spoke out against discrimination because of race or sexual preference. A lifetime ago. Unless of course you believe in Black Lives Matter or support George Floyd.... but that is another story.

When people were shunned because they were black or maybe had AIDS. Or had leprosy. Or hepatitis C. Or some other " affliction " like homosexuality that made people feel uneasy or uncomfortable. Segregation is ugly and wrong.


Thank goodness those days are over.


I would be so concerned if we still held hostility against members of our communities. And I would certainly be quite concerned if our governments decided that being different or having a different point of view was suddenly outlawed or shunned...or punished.
That would be dreadful. ( sarcasm)


People like me do not want to be " vaccinated " .... yet, like Phyllis Ebbage, we are being treated as lepers. As social outcasts. Surely, if you are vaccinated, you don't need to fear us? 
Or have we become, as  Henry James suggested, become incredibly mediocre. 


There is something terribly wrong in 2021. Under the guise of public health and safety, we are becoming fractured and divided. Former friends are being shunned because they refuse to be vaccinated with an untrialed, potentially unsafe injection..


Something is very wrong here. Because governments are telling people to do something, many are lining up to comply.


I do not believe it is just or fair to be treated like Phyllis Ebbage - shunned and treated as a leper because some health official and government official deemed it so.

 At least Diana would have stood up for us lepers......