The Exiles of Penikese Island:
Politics, Prejudice and the Public Health
by Paul Cyr
Part 4 of 4
Parker’s 1915 report was a preparation for his testimony on February 15, 1916, before a Senate committee hearing on the adequacy of the facilities for the treatment of Hansen’s disease patients in the United States. The report is a summation of Parker’s experience on the island, in which he describes the effects of exile on the staff of the hospital:
Experience has shown that the chief obstacle to continuity of service is the solitude, and this applies to the nurses and attendants as well as to those who do not come into contact with the patients. From the hill on Penikese one may look away to the mainland or may see the small white houses upon Cuttyhunk. In clear weather the smokestacks in New Bedford show red in the sun.
It is not surprising that the temper of gregarious man cannot long endure it. Solitude may be precious by way of change; it is deadly when change is lacking. A constant sameness saps the sweetness from the best personality, ruffles the gentlest temper and tends to create petty jealousies and feuds in miniature. And so it is with Penikese…In all, since the beginning there have been 87 different regular employees at the island even though the average number employed at any one time during that period has not exceeded 10.
The employees were there by choice. In the case of the patients, loneliness was complicated by hostility at being confined against their will:
To the heavy-hearted patient the doctor represents a community that without just cause has found him in a distress not of his own doing; has taken from him his liberty – his sole possession remaining; and has cast him out to the elements. No earnest care, no tenderness can compensate him for that act. Society has made him its enemy. Therefore weak though he be he will wage such war as he may. When food is issued to him in any quantity he will use a little and throw the rest away. When water is free for the turning of a faucet he will let it run all night, well knowing that the supply of fresh water is very limited. It having become known that the kindly superintendent will do all in his power to satisfy every request that is at all reasonable, he will be asked to furnish all sorts of delicacies to be discarded, a variety of pets to be neglected, a garden to be forgotten. All such difficulties and more, due not to native meanness, but rather to the solitude and the injustices of such rigid isolation, have confronted the administration at every turn.
Parker’s appreciation of his patients’ situation comes through strongly in this report, but we can also see the weariness caused by the constant conflict between frustration and sympathy. The rules of the hospital had to take into account the needs of both the administration and the patients:
It began to be apparent to the Board that a hospital for the care and treatment of the most dreaded disease known to mankind must, especially when located as remotely as Penikese, inevitably tend ever to become less and less a hospital and more and more a mere dumping ground for persons cast out from society and shunned by all men…The hard position of the patient has been fully recognized. He is confined against his will. He may not go among his fellow men. He is denied all that life held dear. In this plight the board is firm in its determination that he shall not be exploited nor made an exhibition of. As a result of this determination, visitation of the hospital is confined to officials, bona fide students, relatives and friends. The merely curious are obliged to stay away. Furthermore, visitors are not permitted to bring cameras upon the island, and no photographs of patients are permitted except for the purpose of medical record. Neither may the name of any patient be used or his identity revealed without his full consent. From the point of view of the journalist these rules seem unduly severe. From the point of view of the exile they are no more than just, no less than kind.
On February 15, 1916, Parker testified before the Senate hearings in relation to S. 4086, “A Bill to Provide for the Care and Treatment of Persons Afflicted with Leprosy in the United States.” That bill, as finally passed a year later in February 1917, directed the federal government to obtain a site for the establishment of a federal hospital to care for victims of Hansen’s disease. This undertaking was delayed by the First World War. Finally, the Louisiana State Leprosarium became, in January 1921, the site of the federal hospital, and arrangements were made to transfer the Penikese patients that March.
During the afternoon of Thursday, March 10, 1921, the harbor tug, J.T. Sherman, arrived at the Philadelphia & Reading Coal Wharf in New Bedford, bringing the Penikese exiles back to the mainland for their trip to Louisiana. The dock was crowded with the curious. A Japanese patient, resenting their stares as the tug came in, turned his chair around so his back would be towards them. The New Bedford Mercury commented that “In view of the fear of leprosy which has prevailed for centuries, it is interesting to note yesterday that the morbidly curious who gathered around the hospital car while the lepers were making their way to it showed no signs of nervousness in that regard.” Those who were shunned from sight for so long now became a spectacle. A woman who had been on the island for several years met her daughter on the dock, but they were kept apart until daughter and mother agreed to avoid touching. The patient was led aside with her daughter and relatives so they could talk until the train was ready. Dr. Parker was there, of course, and he and the patients said good-bye with tears in their eyes. Rev. Nathan Bailey, who had answered the appeal for Protestant services on the island, was also there to say farewell; when the patients went to their bunks on the train, each found a bouquet of flowers from Rev. Bailey.
Dr. Parker was interviewed by the Sunday Standard soon after the closing of the hospital. He said he felt like a ship without a rudder now that he had nothing other than arranging for the closing of the hospital buildings to concern him. He and Mrs. Parker were planning an overdue vacation; in thirteen years he had only taken three weeks. He was offered a position at the new federal hospital, but said he had been his own boss too long to fit into such a large institution, and he didn’t think that he’d adjust to the Southern climate at age 65. He described the patients as being loath to leave the island that had become home. For, although Penikese was a place of exile, Parker had done what he could to make the island a home for them. Parker had a letter that one of the patients had struggled to write with his deformed hands:
My dear Dr. Parker,
I am here now 15 months with you, and now when I go away from her I am sorry, very much, because I can’t repay that help you did for me. I thank you very much for your benefit you do to me and my sister. We never forget your noble feeling for us unhappy people.
I wish the God to help you and all your people as you desire, and I wish to meet you again outside some day. I say again I thank you very much. Excuse me because I can’t write very well to write you a few line words pleasant to you.
Farewell, Dr. Parker. Good-bye.
Dr. Parker disinfected the buildings on Penikese and assured prospective buyers that there was no danger of infection. No buyers were found, however, so the state burned the buildings, dynamited the foundations, and turned the island into a bird sanctuary.
Parker’s fate was no less ironic. He got no pension from the state, despite newspaper editorials in his favor, because he had not reached retirement age of 70. Having been exposed for so long to Hansen’s disease, no work could be found for him in another state institution, and no patients would come to him in private practice. In October 1921 Dr. Parker and his wife moved to Hamilton, Montana, where their son, Ralph, was doing research on Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Dr. Frank Parker died in Montana in January 1926, while helping to fight an epidemic of whooping cough. He was cremated and his ashes sent back to Massachusetts, where they were scattered on the waves around Penikese.
I would like to thank Mr. Louis Boudreaux, editor of The Star, a magazine published by the patients at the National Hansen’s Disease Center in Carville, Louisiana, for his help and encouragement.