The Exiles of Penikese Island:
Politics, Prejudice and the Public Health
by Paul Cyr
Part 3 of 4
In 1912 the Penikese Island Hospital was made a research center for the study of Hansen’s disease, with Dr. James Honeij appointed as assistant resident physician, and Dr. Simeon Wolbach as visiting pathologist. The 1912 Annual Report reflects this new state of affairs: “It has become apparent that in the present state of public feeling toward leprosy the hospital at Penikese can no longer be looked upon as an experiment or a temporary isolation camp…The institution must be looked upon as a permanent undertaking of the State in its war against contagious diseases.”
A few days after the publication of this report, excitement was caused by the announcement that two patients, Chin Yen and Elias Applebaum, had been discharged as cured. The doctors at Penikese were guardedly optimistic about the possibility that a cure had been found. The disease, however, can enter remission, giving the impression that therapy has effected a cure. In these two cases, as in so many others, the disease progressed and the symptoms reappeared. About two weeks later, Robert Kelso, secretary of the state board, announced the reports had been (….ture). But by attracting attention, the incident provided an opportunity to educate the public about the disease, education being a very important consideration in dealing with such a misunderstood and feared affliction.
Dr. Parker was always extremely cautious in any statements he made to the press and with precautions protecting visitors. In trying to educate the public to a more liberal attitude about victims of the disease, it was crucial that he maintain credibility: hence his caution about telling the press about a possible cure.
In May 1914 Dr. Parker and W.M. Danner of the International Mission to Lepers spoke in New Bedford before the Ministerial Union. Father Bernard and the other Sacred Hearts fathers from Fairhaven had been visiting Penikese Island and saying Mass about once a month. Parker and Danner made an appeal for similar services for Protestant patients. Danner said, “You will sing and hold services…at the hospitals, and there is more danger of catching tuberculosis at a tuberculosis sanatorium than leprosy at Penikese.” Parker added:
We do not know how leprosy spreads. It does spread and we use every precaution in regard to ourselves. But don’t be afraid – believe that the Master will take care of you, and if you haven’t got faith you are out of your place.
Last summer a West Indian leper died at Penikese. He was a Catholic and we were unable to get Father Bernard until night…Picture then this burial by lantern in the dead of night. We went to the western end of the island, where the burials are made. There are no gravestones there, because the lepers do not like to see these reminders of what they are coming to. It was in the month of August, when flowers were many, and each one had his little bunch of flowers. You have never seen a more striking scene.
The New Bedford Sunday Standard of April 25, 1915 ran a long article by one of their reporters, Blanche Brace, entitled “Leper Colony on Penikese Feared by Everyone and Visited by Very Few.” This article is an interesting account of the confrontation of her fears and prejudices with the reality of the Penikese Island hospital. In her account of a visit to Iwa, a Japanese patient, we can see the conflict between her stereotypes and the apparent normality of the surroundings:
It is hard to imagine a lonelier place than the home of Iwa, the Japanese leper…That is the way he prefers it, for he has a great distaste for the society of the other lepers, and very seldom comes to the recreation hall of the hospital.
“Iwa is a good fighter,” said Dr. Parker. “He is fond of working, which is a thing that very few of the lepers are, since the languor of their disease overtakes them. We try to get them to put in as much time as possible in their back yards, but Iwa is the only one we have had any real success with in that direction.”
We stopped for a moment by the bed of tender yellow and lavender crocuses, and the Dr. Parker pushed open the door for us, and we entered the cottage. Iwa was seated in a chair by the side of the table. He was dressed in the Japanese costume, his dull gray kimono, not very different in color from his face, belted in with a sash of a lighter shade. Bandages protruded below the hem of the kimono, and his swollen feet were shapeless in his leper shoes.
Though Iwa may be fond of loneliness, he seemed almost tragically glad to see us…With great pride, he directed our attention to the parrot in its cage.
“Lolita,” he croaked, and just then a shaft of sunlight fell upon the cage…At some distance from the cage was the empty perch of the bittern, carved for it by the leper, and kept now in its customary place, as if Iwa had still some faint hope that his wild companion might home to him…After the desertion of the sea bird, Iwa was given a tame crow, which has since died. The parrot belonged to another patient, who lies buried in the little graveyard. If Lolita could really talk except in set phrases, I wonder what she would tell us, she who has so intimate an opportunity to watch with her beady eyes two lepers in their hours of despairing pain?
Iwa’s kitchen was immaculately arranged, with its spotless table, its shining stove, and neatly placed cooking utensils. The more careful housewife could not have kept it in better order. Screens made of little squares of rice paper adorned with Japanese designs added to the charm of the room. But it is in the living room that Iwa takes greater pride. He hustled about, calling our attention to objects of special interest. Almost every Japanese has the true artist soul, and Iwa has the skillful fingers that go along with it, sometimes. He has very beautifully carved a number of objects, among the most pretentious of which is a flowerstand. Ferns and geraniums in the room grew in profusion, and Iwa had hung a few pictures on the wall to great advantage. One of them was a large print in colors of a part of the Colorado canyon, and when I exclaimed over this, Iwa agreed politely that it was a very fine place, but wistfully directed our attention to the opposite wall, where there was a little framed picture of a mountain in Japan.
If Blanche Brace came to Penikese Island with prejudices, she was at least honest about them, and what could have been an account of a “leper” is instead an account of a human being with pride in his work and his home. Iwa, however, was not always so resigned to his fate. Though he was a citizen of Japan, the authorities there would not permit him to return to his homeland. In desperation he had earlier escaped from the island in a small boat and had reached Boston before he was apprehended and returned to Penikese. After that he accepted his exile and put his spirit into his work.