The East Arm Leprosarium opened in 1955 and replaced the Channel Island Leprosarium. Situated several kilometres south east of Darwin, it was run by the Northern Territory Administration and was staffed by nursing Sisters from the Catholic order, the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Patients isolated at the Leprosarium included children as young as four years of age. Improvements in treatment and changing attitudes towards the disease led to the closing of East Arm Leprosarium in 1982, after which patients were treated in regular hospitals.
Plans for the building of a mainland based leprosarium to replace the unsuitable site on Channel Island were under consideration from as early as the 1930s. However, the outbreak of World War II significantly delayed any further action. The possibility of building a new leprosarium on Melville Island was investigated and rejected in September 1950. In May 1951 the Deputy Director of Health, Dr S. Watford, officially announced the proposal for a new 'model institution' costing £100,000 to be located at East Arm on the mainland. At that time it was reported that pre-fabricated buildings were already being shipped from England, but the new leprosarium at East Arm did not open until 1955. The first batch of patients transferred from Channel Island to East Arm on 1 August 1955. By September of that year 180 patients and staff had been moved.
Conditions at East Arm were a great improvement on Channel Island, with ready access to town water and electricity and telephone services. Increased numbers of staff, a doctor in regular attendance and improved leprosy treatments gave East Arm a more hopeful air than its predecessors.
The fact that the settlement was on the mainland, only about 13 miles from Darwin and readily accessible, was in itself sufficient to improve conditions greatly. Almost overnight many long-dreamed-of facilities became available. There was adequate housing and hygiene, a well-equipped hospital for acute cases, a plentiful water supply, modern kitchens attached to spacious dining rooms, a steam laundry and many other things.
Sisters of the Catholic order the Daughters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, who had cared for the sick on Channel Island from 1943, continued in that role after the opening of East Arm. One of the Sisters later described the East Arm Settlement, saying that after a rough start in a settlement resembling a building site, the new location later became a haven:
In the end, however, thanks to the enlightened planning of the Commonwealth Health Department, a really beautiful settlement had come to life in the bushland. A big hospital block, a comfortable convent, chaplain's quarters, modern kitchen, brightly-painted cottages for non-hospitalised patients, fine school rooms for about thirty or so children, recreational facilities - nothing was forgotten. Lawns, flowers and tropical shrubs - the patients themselves were responsible for these.
Dr A. Humphry, the former Chief Quarantine Officer for the NT, and the Medical Officer for the last few years of Channel Island, took an administrative role at the new leprosarium. According to the September 1964 Journal of the Department of Health, Dr Humphry had been heavily involved in the planning of the new modern facility.
The compulsory isolation and segregation of leprosy sufferers, however, remained government policy after the move from Channel Island to East Arm. In a 1957 administrative letter Dr Humphry stated that two healthy children born at East Arm to a married couple suffering from leprosy, were sent away to Garden Point Mission as 'Healthy infants were not permitted to remain' at the leprosarium.
Newspaper reports from the time revealed community attitudes to the disease had not improved with one article in the NT News complaining that the leprosarium was 'too near' to Darwin and that leprosy patients had been seen attending the local theatre.
Dr John Hargrave, who was associated with the treatment of leprosy in the NT from the mid 1950s, became the Medical Superintendent of East Arm in 1959. At this time there were 153 patients at East Arm.
It is clear from newspaper reports of the time that children were still being sent to East Arm if they were discovered to have the disease. In 1963 a four year old boy from Batchelor was admitted to East Arm and the year before a schoolgirl from the same area had been admitted.
Other reports in papers from 1963 discussed the imprisonment of a young man from East Arm after he had attempted to sexually assault girls and boys at the settlement.
The Family Missionary Magazine 'The Australian Evangel' from March 1963 reported that approximately 200 patients were living at East Arm and that 24 children attended the school there.
Notes from a Treasury Conference held in February 1965 show that there were 112 patients at East Arm and that this number was declining. Only a small number of patients lived permanently at the settlement and the average stay for others was 2 years.
In a history of the settlement written by the Sisters of OLSH Dr Hargrave was given much credit for the changing of fortunes for people with leprosy in the Northern Territory.
His personal drive and dedicated interest have been responsible for much of what has been achieved with regard to advances in treatment, [and] liberalisation of policy in what concerned segregation -
New treatments, curative Sulphone drugs and surgical reconstruction procedures to repair injuries caused by the disease, helped to inform new attitudes to, and understanding of, leprosy. During the 1970s the isolation policy was gradually phased out and patients at East Arm were allowed contact with friends and family from outside of the settlement.
In 1982 East Arm leprosarium was closed. From that time on patients with the disease were treated in regular hospitals.
Sources used to compile this entry: 'LEPROSARIUM CHANGE IN N.T.', The West Australian (Perth, WA), 22 September 1950, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63098032; 'LAZARET AT DARWIN', The West Australian (Perth, WA), 3 May 1951, p. 6, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article48195088; 'New Hope For Lepers', The Canberra Times (Canberra, ACT), 22 October 1956, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91225678; Enquiry into claims regarding leprosy testing on Aboriginal children in the Northern Territory between 1920 and 1960, Evolution Research, February 2010, http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/120404/20100526-1621/leprosy.pdf; 'Missions - Inside Australia', in National Shrine of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20130424193210/http://sacredheart.org.au/nationalshrineOLSH/Missions%20Inside%20Au.htm; 'Missions Inside Australia', in National Shrine of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, 2011, http://web.archive.org/web/20140214051312/http://sacredheart.org.au/nationalshrineOLSH/Missions%20Inside%20Au.htm; NAA: D467, 116/1/3 Leprosarium, East Arm, Darwin 1937-1967; NAA: A1658, 756/11/3 PART 2 Northern Territory - Channel Island, Leper Station - East Arm Settlement - Staff 1961-1966 and NAA: A1658, 756/11/1 PART 2 Northern Territory - East Arm settlement - General 1949-1960.
Prepared by: Gary George and Karen George
Created: 10 February 2011, Last modified: 7 November 2018