The former Thursday Island Government Quarantine and Medical Officer, Dr. Joseph Leathom Wassell was a well-respected and beloved member of the Thursday Island and Torres Strait communities, when he passed away in April 1915. This is confirmed by the positive newspaper reports of the time as well as the construction of a memorial obelisk by the Thursday Island community, in Dr. Wassell’s honour, at the front of the former Victoria Memorial Institute building.
At the time of his death, Dr. Wassell had served for many years as Quarantine and Medical Officer on Thursday Island. His tragic death, at the age of only 42, was reported as being caused by sepsis about a week after stepping on a stone fish whilst on a fishing trip. His funeral took place on 8 April 1915 with most of the island’s residents attending, again confirming the regard in which he was held.
In a somewhat unusual twist to the story, Dr. Wassell’s tombstone, presumably commissioned by his family or the residents of Thursday Island, was mistakenly sent to Torrens Island in South Australia where it remained unrecognised and forgotten until 2005. At this time it was discovered by Torrens Island Quarantine Station manager, Ian White, among a collection of island historical memorabilia, in an old boatshed. Dr. Wassell’s gravestone was then returned to Thursday Island where it was at last placed on Dr. Wassell’s grave. This tombstone, as well as the memorial obelisk, originally situated at the front of the Victoria Memorial Institute building, both commemorate Dr. Joseph Wassell and his well respected place in the community. He was described at the time of his death as a local hero for his medical care of the community, including his saving the lives of many residents during a severe influenza outbreak.
This image, dating from around 1938, shows the Victoria Memorial Institute building on Thursday Island, with the memorial to Dr. Joseph Wassell prominently placed at the front of the building.
Brian Randall – Specialist Librarian, State Library of Queensland