The ugly past of Australia’s ‘lock hospitals’ on Bernier and Dorre Islands slowly revealed

Copied, Compiled & Edited by George W Rehder

Ugly past of ‘lock hospitals’ slowly revealed

Between 1908 and 1919, more than 800 Aboriginal men, women and children were removed from their homelands across Western Australia and taken to ‘lock hospitals’ on Bernier and Dorre Islands for treatment for suspected venereal diseases. Many never returned home.

This article contains images of Indigenous people who are deceased.

For generations, Aboriginal people across WA were not allowed to talk about the islands because it was too traumatic.

Kathleen Musulin was told a story by one elder in Carnarvon, the remote town closest to the Bernier and Dorre Islands.

“As a young girl she would overhear the older women talking about their loved ones being taken over to the islands never to return,” Ms Musulin said.

“She asked her mother, ‘What’s all that about?’, and her mother said, ‘Don’t talk about it. You are not allowed to talk about the islands. Just cover your eyes and just point to the islands’.

“The reason being was because it was so traumatic and having that hurt inside, you can’t really let that go.

“It is time that we need to let that hurt go. Not only for ourselves, but for our future generations.”

A shocking history

Over a period of 11 years women and children were taken to the lock hospital at Dorre Island, while the men went to Bernier Island.(Supplied: Battye Library (725B-22))

After being diagnosed by policemen as having suspected venereal diseases people were rounded up, many placed in chains, and taken to the islands.

This was facilitated by the Aboriginal Act of 1905.

The islands’ facilities were inadequate, people had no contact with their families back home, and they were made to undergo experimental medical treatments.

Academics have said about 40 per cent of those confined never returned home, and more than 100 people died on the islands and were buried in unmarked graves.

WA Minister for Regional Development, Alannah MacTiernan, said she was shocked by the story, including the fact she had never heard of it before it was raised with her earlier this year, even though she had worked in Carnarvon in the 1980s.

“I’ve never, ever heard of this story, so I was really very surprised,” she said.

“Because of the degree of trauma and the shame surrounding it meant that it was not an issue that was raised by Aboriginal people.

“It was such a shameful experience, such a horrific experience, that they never spoke about it.”

The WA Government said it is the first in Australia to acknowledge the lock hospital history.

The Government is funding a statue to be built near the historic One Mile Jetty in Carnarvon, where the people would have been loaded onto boats bound for the islands.

A map outlining Australia’s history of medical incarceration.(Supplied: Melissa Sweet)

‘A truly disgraceful story’

The Bernier and Dorre Island lock hospitals are part of a wider story of the medical incarceration of Aboriginal people across Australia.

Lock hospitals also existed in Port Hedland, in WA, and later in Barambah and Fantome Island in Queensland.

Leprosy field hospitals were also established in WA, the Northern Territory and Queensland.

“This is a truly disgraceful story,” Ms MacTiernan said.

“This [the statue] is saying, ‘This is part of our story’.

“We’ve got to be grown up. We’ve got to acknowledge what happened if we as a community are to move forward.”

The Shire of Carnarvon has also acknowledged the history, and is working with members of the local Aboriginal community on plans for a ceremony in Carnarvon on January 9, 2019.

This will be one hundred years to the day since the last person was removed from the islands and the hospitals closed.

Ms Musulin grew up in Carnarvon hearing stories of how her grandfather had been searching for her great-grandmother, who was taken away from the Broome area.

She has been instrumental in pushing for greater acknowledgement of the lock hospital history, along with Bob Dorey, another member of the Carnarvon Aboriginal community.

Kathleen Musulin and Bob Dorey have been working together for four years to bring the histories of the lock hospitals on Bernier and Dorre Island to light, and have the dark chapter in Australia’s history acknowledged.(ABC North West: Karen Michelmore)

“There were a lot of people who didn’t know the true history of the islands and what happened to our ancestors over there,” Ms Musulin said.

“My great-grandmother, she’s still buried over there, with a lot of other Aboriginal people still buried over there in unmarked graves.

“It’s important, not only for myself, but it’s important for my children and grandchildren to know what happened to their ancestors.

“It’s important for other families because of the trauma and the hurt that we have suffered, knowing what happened to our ancestors and the horrific things that were done to them.

“They were experimented on to find a cure for venereal diseases, they were taken over there and locked up on the islands.

“A lot of them didn’t even have STIs [sexually transmitted infections]. There were many healthy Aboriginal people who were taken over there, children as well.

“And what I think is, one form of that was to remove them from stations and other areas, to get them off the land so the stations could be opened up.”

Mr Dorey, who will perform a ceremony with other elders in Carnarvon next year, said he wants the wider Australian public to know the story of the lock hospitals.

“I would like them to know everything about them, what happened over there,” he said.

“It’s our story. We’ve learned everybody else’s story in school but nothing like this.”

History slowly emerges

The history of the lock hospitals has emerged through the work of several academics working on separate projects.

Health journalist Melissa Sweet picked up a travel book at an airport a decade ago that had a few pages which mentioned the lock hospital history.

“I was transfixed when I read it, because at that stage I had been a health journalist for many years and I had never heard this history of the lock hospitals,” she said.

Ms Sweet started asking around, and was surprised at how few people had known about this history.

“That’s where my journey began to work with community members to bring wider awareness to the history.”

Archaeologist Jade Pervan has found a number of medical artefacts from the lock hospital history.(Supplied: Jade Pervan)

Ms Sweet travelled to Carnarvon where she met Ms Musulin.

The pair have since worked closely on the issue.

As Ms Sweet dug further, she realised the history was part of a much bigger national story about medical incarceration and said while historic the story is still relevant today.

“It’s not about saying it’s all in the past and this doesn’t go on any more,” she said.

“I was always asking people why does this history matter, and people would bring up the current history of over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the prison system.

“A lot of the concerns still remain.”

Medical artefacts uncovered

Archaeologist Jade Pervan grew up in Carnarvon and had heard a little bit of the story.

When she was undertaking research at the University of Western Australia she knew academics were talking about it, and wanted to dig further.

Ms Pervan uncovered a lot of archaeological materials on the islands dating from the lock hospital period.

She discovered European artefacts associated with the doctors and nurses at the hospitals such as expensive ceramic ware, personal items like combs and shoes, and even a piano.

This contrasted sharply with the items connected with the Indigenous people.

“The Aboriginal patients didn’t live in the houses. They were confined to the islands themselves so they had to make makeshift humpies or houses,” Ms Pervan said.

“They were given rations, so if the rations didn’t come in off the boat in time they would have hunted and foraged for the food off the islands.

Ms Pervan said the lock hospitals were established with racial motives.

“We know that these lock hospitals were set up after the 1905 Aboriginal Act which was where they didn’t want supposed diseases that Aboriginal people had passed onto the Europeans,” she said.

“It was likely that a lot of the Aboriginal people didn’t have any of those diseases, in this case it was venereal disease or syphilis, and they were probably placed on there for other reasons.

“It was a very racially-based removal of people to these islands. Europeans at the time were not interned for having the same diseases.”

Acknowledge the brutal history of Indigenous health care – for healing


  1. Melissa Sweet

Independent journalist and health writer; Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney; Founder of PhD candidate, University of Canberra

Associate Professor, Communication, University of Canberra

Senior Lecturer, Centre for Nursing and Midwifery Research, James Cook University

Disclosure statement

Melissa Sweet received an Australian Postgraduate Award to support her PhD candidature. The APA ended in late 2015.

Kerry McCallum receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Lynore Geia does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


This article was co-authored by Kathleen Musulin, a Malgana/Yawuru woman living in Carnarvon and a member of the Carnarvon Shire Council lock hospital memorial working group.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images of deceased people.

In March, a small group of people joined the musician, environmentalist and former politician Peter Garrett on a deeply moving journey to a remote island, about 58 kilometres off the coast from the Western Australian town of Carnarvon.

For Garrett, the boat ride was retracing travels that his grandmother had made almost a century earlier, en route to Dorre and Bernier islands, where Aboriginal people were incarcerated on medical grounds between 1908 and 1919.

Part of the journey was filmed for the SBS documentary series, Who Do You Think You Are?, which screened on Tuesday night. The episode revealed some of the history of Garrett’s grandmother, who worked on the islands as a nurse.

For Kathleen Musulin, a Malgana/Yawuru woman living in Carnarvon (and co-author of this article), the trip to Dorre with Garrett was also an opportunity to connect with ancestors, particularly her great grandmother, who was one of hundreds of Aboriginal people imprisoned on the islands, many of whom died there.

The stated reason for the removal of Aboriginal people to “lock hospitals” on Bernier and Dorre islands was “venereal disease”, though many questions surround this non-specific diagnosis, particularly given the role of police and non-medical people in diagnosing and removing people, often in chains and using force.

A plaque remembering those who were imprisoned and who died on the islands. Memorial at Dorre Island, Author provided

Lock hospitals were an invention of the British Empire. In the 1800s, they were used to confine women in English garrison towns who were thought to be engaged in sex work and to have venereal disease, under a series of Contagious Diseases Acts designed to protect the health of soldiers rather than the prisoner-patients.

Following vocal opposition, lock hospitals were abandoned in Britain, although similar measures continued elsewhere in the British Empire into the 20th century. In Australia, lock hospitals for “common prostitutes” existed in Melbourne and Brisbane into the 1900s.

However, for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, lock hospitals operated in a different context – firmly rooted in the institutionalised racism of White Australia. Legislation providing for the “protection” of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people resulted in human rights abuses, intrusive surveillance, control, disruption, institutionalisation, and harm.

Facilities recorded extremely high death rates. Hospital Ward Dorre Island/State library of Western Australia

In the early years of the Bernier and Dorre lock hospitals, inmates were subjected to invasive interventions, while in latter years there was little medical care. The facilities recorded extremely high death rates, as did a lock hospital that operated from 1928 to 1945 on Fantome or Eumilli Island in the Palm Island group near Townsville in Queensland.

The removal of people to Bernier and Dorre islands was occurring at a time when authorities sought to prevent sexual relationships between Aboriginal women and white men as well as so-called “Asiatics”, as enacted in the WA Aborigines Act of 1905. As historian Dr Mary Anne Jebb has observed in an unpublished manuscript, this legislation:

…institutionalised Aboriginal women as immoral and intimacy between races as a problem which needed to be stamped out.

The lock hospitals were also interlinked with other traumas of colonisation, including the removal of Aboriginal people as prisoners or witnesses (mainly to do with the killing of stock), and the removal of children (some of the travelling inspectors who took away people with disease also took children). It was a time when senior doctors considered neck-chaining of Aboriginal people, often for prolonged periods, to be “humane”.

The lock hospitals were interlinked with other traumas of colonisation. Library of Western Australia

Around the time of the lock hospitals, Aboriginal people in WA were active in drawing public and political attention to wide-ranging injustices, including police brutality, their exclusion from schools and general health services, and other policies of segregation.

While the early decades of the 20th century were marked by concern about venereal diseases in the wider population, the policies and practices for non-Indigenous people stood in stark contrast to treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 1911, a meeting of Australasian doctors recommended that general hospitals and dispensaries, rather than lock hospitals, “should provide the necessary accommodation for venereal cases”.

Male Aboriginal patients outside the hospital at Bernier Island. State Library of Western Australia

When many states introduced compulsory notification and treatment for venereal diseases for the general population following the first world war, non-Indigenous patients were provided with education and free treatment. By contrast, the lock hospitals of Queensland and WA provided penal rather than therapeutic conditions.

As a Yamaji researcher Dr Robin Barrington has observed of the Bernier and Dorre lock hospitals, they were:

…places of imprisonment, exile, isolation, segregation, anthropological investigations and medical experiments made possible by laws of exception.

At the time, even authorities acknowledged that Aboriginal people saw the Bernier and Dorre lock hospitals as penal institutions. In 1909, newspapers reported WA’s Chief Protector of Aborigines, Charles Gale, stating they were seen “as a sort of gaol”.

It was not only the island confinement that was punitive; people often faced traumatic long journeys, on foot and by ship, as well as long periods in prisons or other lock-ups awaiting transport to the islands.

Garrett says it would have been terrifying to be sent to to Dorre Island. Screenshot/Who Do You Think You Are/ SBS

In an interview some weeks after his visit to Dorre Island, Garrett told me (Melissa Sweet) that it had made him appreciate how terrifying it would have been for those Aboriginal people taken there. He compared the lock hospitals to a form of “gulag”, and described the island’s harsh landscape.

He said:

Even by Australian standards, it is remarkably barren, remote, inhospitable and, to be there for weeks on end, never mind years on end, yes, it really brings you up with a start… You can’t fail but to come away with a very strong feeling of loss and of unhappiness and of confusion.

During his short visit to Carnarvon, Garrett was struck by the lack of local acknowledgement for this internationally significant history. He noted, for example, its absence from a large new historical display at the town’s landmark One Mile Jetty, from where many inmates and staff departed for the islands.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want greater public acknowledgement of the Bernier, Dorre and Fantome island lock hospitals and their traumatic impacts. University of Western Australia

For Kathleen Musulin, visiting Dorre was a deeply moving and spiritual experience, which is part of a bigger journey to increase public awareness and understanding of the lock hospitals’ histories. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want greater public acknowledgement of the Bernier, Dorre and Fantome island lock hospitals and their traumatic impacts, according to findings from my (Melissa Sweet’s) PhD research.

This is seen as important for healing and justice, with interviewees wanting the wider Australian community to know “what Aboriginal people went through”. Efforts are now underway, through a Carnarvon Shire Council working group, to develop memorials to pay respects to those taken to the islands.

Peter Garrett and Kathleen Musulin on Dorre island. Screenshot/Who Do You Think You Are/ SBS

Knowing and acknowledging this history is particularly important for health systems and professionals, given that current Australian health dialogue supports the development of culturally safe services and practices, and this requires an understanding of one’s own profession’s historical complicity in such events.

Learning from history opens the way to moving forward with respect in health professions, to provide services that will ensure better health outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, many of whom continue to experience adverse and traumatising experiences with health care.

The lock hospitals are part of a wider history of medical incarceration, as exemplified by Fantome Island, which also housed a leprosarium for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people from 1940-73. These histories remain very present in the memories and lives of many families on Palm Island.

These and other episodes of medical incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can be seen as archetypal examples of the role of health care professionals and systems in colonisation, contributing to intergenerational traumas.

The Australian Psychological Society recently issued an apology for the profession’s role in contributing to the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including its failure to advocate on important matters such as the policy of forced removal, which resulted in the Stolen Generations.

Far more could be done across health systems to acknowledge the wider histories of harmful health care policies, systems and practices that institutionalised, excluded, segregated and harmed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Acknowledgement is one important step towards healing and reparation.

* Our next article will investigate what can be learnt from the extensive newspaper coverage of the lock hospitals.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s