Policing Public Health in Queensland, 1859 - 1919

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Ganter, Regina

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Richards, Jonathan

Turnbull, Paul

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Histories of public health in colonial and immediately post colonial Queensland do not, in general, mention any role for the police. Equally, histories of the Queensland police are as reticent on the subject as their medical colleagues. Annual Reports from Commissioners of Police and Commissioners of Public Health to the Parliament are also silent on the subject. Yet it is evident that, especially in the nineteenth century, the police played an important role in the management of some diseases, both acute and chronic.

In this thesis, I investigate the public health role of the Queensland police: starting with the New South Wales Towns Police Act of 1838, which empowered the police of proclaimed towns to order the removal of obstructions and nuisances, the police then moved into more 'medical‘ areas. As an important part of their function, the discipline and control of the populace in public places, they became involved in the early management of persons suspected of being of unsound mind. Later, with the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868, the police became involved in the complicated nexus between prostitution and venereal diseases, a nexus that would lead directly to the Fitzgerald Inquiry of 1989. Aborigines were also widely perceived to be affected by venereal diseases; since they did not in general live in towns proclaimed under the Contagious Diseases legislation, they were ignored by the primary health advisory body, the Central Board of Health. The police, trying to establish better relations with the Indigenous population after the carnage of the Frontier Wars, attempted to help out those who seemed to be suffering the most.

The discovery of gold had profound demographic effects, including the 'invasion‘ of the gold fields by a large number of Chinese labourers, people who soon came to be labeled as the importers of the dread disease of leprosy. The police were instructed in 1892 to arrest suspected ‗lepers‘, and were expected to look after them during the long periods that often occurred between arrest and confirmation of diagnosis, at which point they would escort the unfortunate patient to a lazarette. In addition, they performed important social roles, dealing with matters of compensation for goods destroyed (from fear of contagion), to investigating the social conditions of families left without bread winners, and other activities.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Humanities

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