Project Canterbury

The Church in Melanesia

Edited by Stuart W. Artless

Sydney, N.S.W.: Melanesian Mission, [1936]

Chapter 6. Healing the Sick

By Miss Ellen Wilson.

Jesus said: "Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers." (St. Matt. 10; 8)


Wherever the Pioneer Missionary goes the Healing Art goes with him. The materials are of the simplest, but sufficient for the ills of the simple life, untouched, as yet, by civilised disease. Quinine, pills, Friar's Balsam, corrosive sublimate, lint bandages, and, above all, the magic "Pain Killer," will, judiciously applied, speedily bring him patients and a reputation. Not that the Melanesians are without panaceas of their own. They have many, chiefly known to the old and wise. Nature has provided the castor oil tree and many leaves that have excellent medicinal properties. There are also ferns, besides other plants, containing more objectionable properties of which the young girls and wives make use.

But the native diagnosis is often at fault and the uncanny knowledge of the white man, with his apparently unerring selection of a remedy, comes as a welcome surprise. To a class at Norfolk Island the question was put, "Did anyone besides Jesus Christ work miracles?" "Comins," was the prompt reply. Now Mr. Comins had been engaged one day in bringing to life, after the approved manner, an apparently drowned woman. As soon as she began to breathe, he looked round for some means by which to get her body warm again. His eye lighted on a native oven, and, taking the hot stones, having first wrapped the woman in a blanket, he put them round her. The friends looked on with quiet interest, taking it for granted that the corpse was being cooked prior to eating; when, to their amazement, the corpse presently rose to its feet and walked home. A white man's miracle!

Mr. Comins had far more medical knowledge than most of the missionaries in the Melanesian Mission in his day. Their equipment of knowledge and medicaments [65/66] was slight, but a laver of sound common sense carried them through.

For long years no one visualised the presence of a doctor or a nurse in the Islands; and indeed, until white people introduced their peculiar diseases, they were not so necessary. Rheumatism, malaria, and stomach troubles are disturbing and painful, but they contain no mystery. In days when hookworm and injections were unknown, sores would have healed no better and no sooner under a professional eye. A tooth can be drawn and even very simple surgery can be carried out, at a pinch, by the young and the bold; greatly helped by the faith of the patient. One priest told of a chief, whose illness was attributed to a charm, and to whom he had sent a message. On visiting the sick man later, the latter said, "After I had received your message telling me not to fear, I felt the pain going down and down till it passed out at my toes." A boy wrote asking for medicine on behalf of a friend who had a pain: he did not know whether it was his lungs or his heart, but he would like medicine sent for it. Patients were brought more or less reluctantly by their friends. "This one has been ill for weeks without number; his head, his legs, his stomach are all bad. You will, no doubt, give him medicine to swallow, and rub his chest." Some had a certain mistrust of drinks. Bishop John Selwyn prudently drank some of the medicine himself before giving it to the great chief Soga, whose attendants also partook of it; so the dose must have been a fairly generous one!

The healing art opened the way for light to follow in its wake. A priest wrote about a patient with a bad sore extending from wrist to elbow, and with the bone showing in places: "After a week's treatment I am thankful to say that he is much better. I believe if I get him properly fixed up that it will mean the starting of a school in his village."

The first missionary of the Melanesian Mission really qualified to practice was Dr. Welchman, who went out to Melanesia after years of medical practice in England. [66/67] No doubt this helped to give him his unique position on Santa Isabel. As priest and doctor the souls and bodies of his people received from him the same skilful care. The people had implicit trust in him. The "dokitor's" word was enough.

A Melanesian native, who had worked in Fiji for some years, and was therefore an authority on many things, held forth one day on the cause of sickness among strangers to the climate. "It is the smell," he said; "the smell of the earth, the smell of the trees, the smell of the water: they do not know it, it is strange and they get ill." "What about Fiji, were you ill there?" The question was waived aside: "Fiji was good, all things were good there. But when I got back the smell had grown strange, and I was ill for weeks without number." Asked how he became cured, he looked surprised at such a question being asked and answered simply, "I went to the 'dokitor'!"

Santa Isabel (Bugotu) was thus well provided with the presence of Henry Welchman; but Santa Isabel was only one island among many. The need for a hospital where patients could be taken for treatment, with doctor and nurses to look after them, became more and more imperative. Dr. "Rivers, who came to the islands more than once on research work, travelling on the "Southern Cross," spoke on the great need of this. "I was called," he said, "to see a man who was ill, and found him suffering from pneumonia. I spent much time and trouble in looking after him, only to discover that I was one of thirteen doctors! During the time I was treating him, he was undergoing twelve other treatments all directed to counteract the influence of certain spirits and agencies to which the disease is believed to be due."

In the Southern Islands the Presbyterians had an excellent hospital on Ambrym, generously open to all, but it was completely wiped out by a volcanic eruption in 19T3, when Dr. Bowie with the patients and natives escaped by boats through the scalding hot waters of the sea. After this the nearest hospital was at Vila.

[68] In the Northern Islands there was a small hospital at the Government station on Tulagi, and a doctor of Messrs. Lever's Company at Gavutu, but these could do little to help. Great was the rejoicing when our need was met, at last, by the Wclchman Memorial Hospital. After long searching for a suitable site, which must include a suitable harbour, it was decided to build on the hill of Hautambu on Guadalcanal. The site was not absolutely ideal, for at certain times the landing was difficult. Also there was a small river between the landing place and the hill, which, though usually quite fordable, became almost impossible in the rainy seasons. Before long a bridge made things easy, and in all other respects the site was admirable. The Hospital was opened in 1913, and in the first doctor, and his staff, the Mission was most fortunate. Dr. Marshall was not only skilled in his profession, but he had also a personal charm which drew the trust and confidence of his patients. He was ably seconded by Sister Miller and Sister Mustard.

The patients were supposed to pay something, if they could, either in money or native food. The smallest donation given was that of an old woman in gratitude for kindness received, although her case was incurable. The gift was a porpoise tooth, in value about one penny.

Most of the patients were unaccustomed to hospital or nursing ways, and found them irksome. A nurse wrote about a woman who came in with a bad septic leg, which had to be put in a splint, not at all to her liking: "Often, after her dressing was done, and the splint put in place, we would return a little later and find Alice either taking off her bandage or just putting it on, and the splint re-adjusted to her own liking. Of course we scolded her, but I don't suppose she understood a word of what we were saying any more than we understood a word of her language. She knew we were angry, though, and would try to tell us why she did it. She was a dear old thing and we got very fond of her. She got on splendidly, and eventually the splint was removed and the leg healed."

[69] There was other work, too, going on at the same time. A nurse wrote later: "I noticed this afternoon that a patient, who was a teacher, was talking very earnestly with an old woman from Bugotu, also a patient: and as I came near he said, 'This woman does not know anything about the Old Testament; I am telling her about David.' She appeared keenly interested, and kept on asking him questions. I found that all the while he was here he went along every afternoon to tell her something more." Again she wrote: "I was showing an old woman some Biblical pictures, and I was surprised to find how much she knew of what each picture represented; standing, looking on at us, was a Heathen girl from the same island as this old woman, speaking the same language. She at once began to explain the pictures to this girl and to pass on the knowledge she possessed, and since then I have often found this girl spending much time trying to read a Bugotu prayer book. Those of them who are able to do so read the Bible while here as patients. I have seen them spend hours together over it, so that here one can say that there are definite signs of the Holy Spirit's working, causing them to seek for more knowledge."

White patients, mostly traders, were admitted also to the hospital, and their payments helped to defray expenses. The hospital was proving itself indispensable, and all was going well when the Great War laid its arresting hand on the far off Solomon Islands, and in the Staff List of October, 1916, the words "On active service" follow Dr. Marshall's name.

With doctor and nurses away, the wards stood empty, the theatre was unused, and white ants were the only working element there. These make short work of an empty building, and in order to preserve the fabric, and at the same time turn it to good use, the hospital passed into the possession of the Mclanesian Printing Press, when the move was made from Norfolk Island to the Solomons.

Once more the Mission was dependent for medical [69/70] help on Tulagi and the Government doctor. But by this time there were nurses at the Central Schools, while some of the men had been at Livingstone College and emerged with that "dangerous," but exceedingly useful, possession, "a little knowledge" both of medicine and surgery.

For twelve years the Mission had to get on as best it could without a doctor, and to learn to rely more than ever on the Greatest Doctor of All. The following experience given by a district nurse could be borne out by many others: "I found the house of the sick woman, who was laid on some boards on an earthen floor; a pig lay at her head while fowls scratched around. I soon discovered that she was in a dangerous condition, that it was a case for a surgeon and that a nurse and medicine alone could do little or nothing to help her. I explained the position to her husband and suggested to him that we should, together, place her in God's hands. Afterwards I departed, leaving suitable food to keep up her strength. The next day, on arrival at the village, I met the husband, his face all smiles, who said, 'She is better, and I have been into the church to give thanks.' On examining the woman I found her to be out of danger. When a nurse finds herself in an isolated place, where she has no doctor to turn to for assistance, she is compelled to fall back in prayer on the Great Healer of sickness in a way that is not known while she has human aid to lean on."

Meantime the diseases of the white man were making their way into the Islands. In 1924, Dr. Manson Bahr, pleading for more medical aid in the South Pacific, said, "We must remember that the white man has been responsible for the introduction of ophthalmia, dysentery, leprosy, tuberculosis, small-pox, venereal disease. In addition we have bronchitis, pneumonia, whooping cough, and last, but not least, measles. There is hardly one of these diseases for which we have not now an efficient remedy: yet only one Government Officer for the whole group of the Solomon Islands!"

[71] Every ship seemed to bring some germ or other. Villages were depopulated by epidemics of influenza or measles; the natives being wholly ignorant of how to treat them. To rush into the sea or river, when burning with fever, seemed to them the obvious remedy and comfort. And there was no one at hand to prevent it.

Great help came with the visit of Dr. Lambert, of the Rockefeller Institute, bringing remedies for hookworm and yaws. By the aid of injections and medicines miraculous results were obtained. Patients with feet half eaten away crawled miles to receive an injection. Mothers brought their babies with their little faces disfigured and repulsive, and, lo! the sores healed and disappeared, and the tiny children recovered their roundness of limb and childish beauty. But the medicine was costly, and those to administrate it were all too few. Then came an epidemic of Infantile Paralysis with its crippling results.

For the most terrible disease of all, leprosy, there was no remedy, and cases of it were being constantly reported. That cases of leprosy existed had been suspected by some and denied by others; till in 1923 a suspected case on Gela (Florida) was certified as leprosy by the Government doctors. Ten years later there were known to be hundreds of lepers in the Solomon Islands' Protectorate.

It is easy to realise the silent agony of a certain native girl who had just learnt that she was a leper, cut off from all that life meant to her, and knowing the added horrors still in store for her. And to know that a remedy was possible, but, alas! unattainable, made it seem all the more cruel. In this particular case prayer replaced science, and the disease was arrested.

These were dark years in the medical history of the Melanesian Mission; years that ended happily in the coming of Dr. Maybury in 1929, and the gift of money sufficient to build a hospital. A site was found, this time at Fauabu on North Mala, a more central one than the last, with a river to ensure a supply of water, and [71/72] good soil in which to grow food. The name Fauabu has the same significance as the old Hautambu, "Sacred Rock," a name pleasantly suggestive of permanence. Clearing began at once, and in 1930 the hospital was sufficiently advanced to receive patients and to accommodate two nurses, Miss Simson and Miss Guylee. The former had already had many years of valuable experience at Siota. The hospital when finished contained four wards, one of which was named after Dr. Welchman, and another after Dr. Marshall. In his report for 1933 the Bishop was able to say, "We have now a splendidly equipped hospital with a first rate staff. We have three excellent nurses and a set of native orderlies."

In the first quarter of 1931, 56 patients were admitted, and 1,712 outpatients attended to.

Best of all to the mind of many was the founding of the Leper Colony by Dr. Maybury. It was situated not very far from the hospital, and was called Qaibaita after the river which flows near by, but its full title is "The Colony of St. Francis for Lepers." Here for the first time leprosy could be seriously dealt with.

A visitor to Qaibaita would be shown the houses in which the lepers lived, the gardens in which they worked, the little chapel in which they worshipped. He would see among the sick two healthy women, who had risked the danger of infection rather than be separated from their husbands. Every variety of leprosy was there, beginning at the early stage where the peculiar patches are only seen on the back, to the more advanced stage where the typical nodules are visible all over the body. There is hope for these cases, but what outlook is there for the young man who, even if the leprosy be arrested, must continue his life without fingers or toes? Brought too late. Ten years too late. Those sinister words must apply to a sadly large number of cases. In their distressful slate one can hardly wonder that laziness was a weakness among the lepers. They needed someone to be a leader and helper, and such a person was found in Brother Barnabas, himself a leper. He it was [72/73] who prepared seven lepers for Baptism. They were baptised by the Rev. Jack Talofuila, the faithful old Mala priest, who also celebrated the Holy Communion in the little chapel at the hospital.

The founding of this leper colony was a subject for deep thankfulness to all, and great was the blow when news came that it had temporarily to be closed and the lepers sent away.

It is with great joy that we are able to say that the Leper Colony of St. Francis is being re-opened. Through the generosity of friends in England and Australia who are bearing the cost of building the huts for lepers, with a chapel as the spiritual centre, it has been possible to make a fresh start with the work, and to put it on a sure and lasting foundation.

There was great thankfulness in 1936 over the arrival of Dr. James to take charge of the Fauabu hospital. Dr. James is a keen missionary, and has already had six years' experience of medical work in the tropics. During the interregnum the hospital work at Fauabu went on steadily, thanks to the efficiency of the nurses. A native woman, cheerfully walking about on crutches, owed her life to the skilful amputation of her leg by one of the nurses.

It is the Bishop's intention to have a small Mission hospital built on the island of Oba in the New Hebrides. This hospital is to be called the "Godden Memorial" hospital, and will perpetuate the memory of C. C. Godden, an Australian priest and member of the Mission, who was murdered by a heathen man on Oba.

On looking back we can see the progress made medically since the days when neither doctor nor nurse was to be found in the Melanesian Mission area. But what a vast amount still remains to be done if the course of sickness in the Islands is to be checked! At present the Mission has only one hospital, a small leper colony, and not s dozen nurses.

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