The tiny Pacific island-nation of Nauru is mostly known for what can be acquired from it – be it phosphate from its rich deposits or the opportunity to process asylum-seekers offshore – and not what can be given to it.
Dr Bernard H. Quin (1894–1943)
in Melbourne in 1941
However, in a moving ceremony in Canberra on May 24, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), at its 2014 national conference, honoured an Australian doctor for his extraordinary service to the people of Nauru leading up to and during World War II, service that ultimately cost him his life.
The doctor in question is Dr Bernard Haselden Quin. Born in Melbourne in 1894, Dr Quin graduated from the University of Melbourne with an MBBS degree in 1920. Later that year, he accepted the post of resident medical officer for the British Phosphate Commission on Nauru and Ocean Island in the Pacific. He had a particular interest in studying tropical medicine, and his medical skills would have been much needed due to the influenza epidemic in the region at the time.
Dr Quin returned to Australia and married in 1922. Tragically, Dr Quin lost both his wife and his first child in childbirth the following year. He married again in 1926 and commenced a general practice in the Victorian town of Echuca, where he had five children.
Raising a young family became increasingly difficult in Echuca for Dr Quin during the time of the Great Depression, as his patients were often unable to pay their medical bills. It was at this time that a new opportunity arose to return as a government medical officer on Nauru, for which Australia had obtained a trustee mandate from the League of Nations. Dr Quin decided to leave Australia in 1935 with his wife and children, and settle back on Nauru.
Dr Quin’s work on Nauru included attending to the leper colony on the island. He also delivered many babies and even had some named after him. He was well loved and respected by his patients, and these were idyllic years for his children. However, with the outbreak of war in 1939, this idyllic life soon ended.
By 1940, Germany had begun attacking merchant vessels throughout the Pacific in an attempt to restrict the Allies’ supply lines.
As part of this campaign, two Germany raiders, Komet and Orion, sank five phosphate supply ships off Nauru in December, and then turned their attention to the island itself. On December 27, Komet shelled the island, damaging the phosphate mines and ship-loading infrastructure.
Due to these newly posed dangers to residents on Nauru, the wives and children of Australian personnel were evacuated, and Dr Quin returned with his family to Australia in July 1941.
But Dr Quin was soon asked to return to continue his work with the Nauruans in his previous role. This time he was also asked to attend to the medical needs of the Australian military garrison that had been sent to the island after the attacks by the German raiders. Thus, in September 1941, he left his family behind in Australia and returned to Nauru as an honorary captain, attending to the AIF. This was the last time Dr Quin would see his family.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 and their advances throughout the Pacific, the Australian military contingent in February 1942 withdrew from Nauru and took much of what remained of Australia’s civilian presence with them.
However, after a request to him from the Australian military in Canberra to help retain possession of Nauru, Dr Quin elected to remain behind on the island and attend to his Nauruan patients. Four other Australians who had been working with Dr Quin on the island since the 1930’s also elected to remain behind.
On August 25, 1942, the Japanese invaded Nauru and interned Dr Quin and the four other Australians. Life was very harsh under the Japanese, with little food and a number of atrocities, which before the end of the war included the massacre of the entire leper colony, who had all been patients of Dr Quin.
Then, on March 25, 1943, the U.S. air force bombed an airstrip on Nauru that the Japanese had built to run supplies and aircraft throughout the Pacific.
The next day, in retaliation for the bombing, the Japanese murdered Dr Quin, and with him the four other Australians who had remained on the island.
The testimonies from islander witnesses indicated that the five Australians were beheaded. These reports also testify that Dr Quin was close to starvation at the time, and that he wore his rosary beads around his neck at his execution.
Dr Quin’s family did not find out about his death until the war was over. Following their surrender, the Japanese responsible for the murder of the five Australians were tried for war crimes by the Allies, found guilty and hanged or imprisoned.
The Australian Medical Association honoured Dr Bernard Quin at its 2014 national conference in Canberra by posthumously awarding him the AMA President’s Award. Dr Quin’s five children from his second marriage, who are all still alive, were present for the ceremony. Also present were around 60 descendants of Dr Quin, the author of this article being one of them.
AMA members present were clearly moved by the ceremony, concluding it with a rare standing ovation.
Dr Quin’s exemplary life and heroic death provided a touching example of service and sacrifice above and beyond the line of duty for which the medical profession can be proud.
Patrick Doyle, Dr Quin’s grandson, lives in Melbourne.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) President’s Award presented posthumously in commemoration of the life and work of Dr Bernard H. Quin (1894-1943) at the AMA’s national conference in Canberra, May 24, 2014.