Boys diseased in body, and sullied in soul, lost forever as builders of our country” – Mrs Harrison Lee Cowie, in Ashburton Guardian, 8 June, 1917
Mrs Cowie, of the ‘Strength of the Nation’ movement, was referring to boys being held at Quarantine Island (Kamau Taurua) in Otago harbour (Dunedin, New Zealand). At least Mrs Cowie ventured to discuss the subject in public. When the New Zealand House of Representatives were to debate the war regulations relating to venereal disease in July 1916, women were asked to leave the public galleries. Such an indelicate subject was not one for their ears. By this time, ninety soldiers were already ‘segregated on a certain quarantine station’. Proclaiming that he was not the ‘Minister of Morals but the Minister of Health’, George Russell sought measures to prevent the spread of the disease be believed to be ‘rampant’, spread ‘in lavatories, privies, and barbers’ shops, by the use of towels, the kissing of children, the smoking of infected pipes, and in other ways’.
Planned quarantine for men with venereal diseases was said in 1916 to be necessary to protect ‘the women of the country’ and ‘the children of the future’. But there were further objectives at work, not least keeping men healthy to serve in the forces. Quarantining men on an isolated island at the south of New Zealand kept the problem out of sight of the country’s main population centres. Knowledge of dissolute servicemen, the authorities feared, would undermine support for the military. Detention on the island could ensure that men complied with the long course of treatment necessary, and allow their return to service. In addition, banishment to an island where there was nothing to do but drill was, in effect, a punishment of a particularly tedious and vexatious kind.
Quarantine Island, wrote the Director of the Army Medical Services, was ‘much better from a public point of view’ for treating those with venereal disease, than in ‘a ward of a public hospital’. From 1916 to 1919, 785 men were treated on Quarantine Island where they could be kept out of public view; 591 for gonorrhea and 194 for syphilis. Known as the Port Chalmers Military Hospital, the facility was staffed by eight New Zealand Army Medical Corp men under the leadership of Captain W.H. Borrie.
But was their detention legitimate? It took a chef at the Australia Hotel in Rotorua to ask this question. Alfred Gittens was called up in February 1918 and medical inspection revealed that he was suffering from ‘Tertiary Syphilis with rashes developing’. Regarded as a ‘grave menace to public health by virtue of his occupation’ the Director of Medical Services decreed that he be sent to Quarantine Island. Gittens wrote to the commanding officer in outrage:
I hereby apply for my immediate discharge from camp on the grounds that I am illegally held and detained here …. I am not a defaulter nor have I committed any breach of the law. I was illegally brought into camp under escort and placed in the casualty ward on account of a disease contracted 17 years ago….. I desire to know under what authority I am held here. Being a married man I want my position in the Defence forces settled immediately as the matter to me is one of urgency.”
Gittens’ complaint led to a flurry of defence force memos in an attempt to clarify the position. By March the authorities had to admit that there was no proper authority for sending men with venereal disease to Quarantine Island “although they are men who could not be made available for service” whatever the decision of a Military Service Board. This made no difference to the policy that “No man suffering from V.D. is to be released from Q. Island, or excused being sent”.
Further complaints about detention made their way to the press. In response to the policy that all reservists with venereal disease, regardless of medical classification, should be sent to the island, a correspondent to the Auckland Observer wanted to know why this particular infectious disease should not be dealt with in the same way as all other infectious diseases. Since civilians with V.D. were not detained, it seemed wrong that servicemen were.
Near the end of 1918, another epidemic, returning with the troopships, was facing the country. Those patients remaining on Quarantine Island were evacuated to Featherston in the North Island, so that troops on ships with suspected influenza could be quarantined on the island. The citizens of Featherston became alarmed: the Wairarapa Standard proclaimed that while they had no problem housing German internees, or consumptives,
to bring a couple of hundred men suffering from a disease just as loathsome as leprosy into almost the heart of a township, …. is quite unnecessary, and not only highly objectionable, but extremely dangerous to public health.”
The paper went on to speculate that among the men were “some whose parents fancy were killed in battle or reported missing”, since they were not notified that their sons were “living and breathing masses of corruption”. The Defence Department, however, now took a more measured view, in light of the numbers of returning troops who required treatment. Eventually regulations were gazetted which gave the authorities power to order hospital treatment for sufferers from gonorrhea, syphilis and soft chancre, which were declared to be infectious diseases.
When Damaged Goods, the film from Eugene Brieux’s novel about VD (which had previously been banned in New Zealand) was eventually shown in Dunedin in 1920, crowds attended. It seemed that the shame attached to the disease might be dissipating. The Otago Daily Times found the film “profoundly moving” and “for every grade of society”. But some things didn’t change. No ‘mixed audiences’ could view the film: women only could attend the afternoon sessions and the evening sessions were reserved for men.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus. A more extensive discussion may be found in her chapter “Quarantine for Venereal disease in New Zealand, 1915-1918” in Alison Bashford ed. Quarantine: Local and Global Histories. pp. 121-135