From the June 26, 1981 edition of the Vineyard Gazette:

Leprosy was taking its last cruel hold. The man with the disease-ravaged body lay dying. A clergyman, completing the trip from New Bedford to Penikese Island, had arrived to administer the last rites.

“Do you believe in God?” asked the man of the cloth, leaning over the leper.

“I don’t know about God,” the dying man whispered. “But I believe in Dr. Parker.”

The boys and teachers of the Penikese Island School also believe in Dr. Frank H. Parker. This past Sunday, standing under a wide blue sky, looking out over a calm Buzzards Bay, the boys and their teachers, joined by members of the Dukes County Historical Society and the Cuttyhunk Historical Center, unveiled a monument to Dr. and Mrs. Parker on that small solitary isle. The courageous work of the doctor, who became a world-renowned authority on the dreaded disease because of his work with lepers banished to Penikese, will not go forgotten.

Penikese is the castaway island of the Elizabeth chain. Off by itself, about a mile north of Cuttyhunk island, it is now a bird sanctuary owned by the state Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, as well as the home of the school for delinquent boys.

In his book, Those Pearly Isles, historian Harold C. Wilson writes: “Certainly that recorded history of Penikese shows that only birds are able to adapt to this pile of rock, sand and gravel.”

Mr. Wilson’s book pre-dates the founding of the Penikese Island School eight years ago. The school, operated by the state Department of Youth Services, works with male juvenile offenders referred by the court. The boys seemed on this pleasant summer day to have adapted quite well to the island.

Greeting visitors as if to a distant tropical paradise, two boys stopped their swimming on the cool bay waters to scale a rock jetty and stand tanned, one tattooed, in cutoff shorts, ready to assist in docking.

At present, there are six boys at the school. They stay on the island for four months and receive constant attention with teacher-counselors who travel by boat back and forth from Woods Hole for five-day shifts. Depending upon their interests and inclinations, the boys are taught carpentry and cooking skills, in addition to the more traditional academic subjects.

The school buildings are built on the foundations of the John Anderson School of Natural History started by Harvard zoology professor Louis Agassiz in 1873, and the foundation of Dr. Parker’s laboratory.

Dr. Parker, a skin specialist, and his wife came to the island in 1907, two years after the state established the leper colony and two years after coastline communities from Providence to Provincetown erupted in panic over news that a leper colony would be established somewhere in the region. The original state plan called for a colony in Brewster but protests thwarted the plan and turned eyes to Penikese. Five lepers were the first to be exiled.

The Parkers stayed with the lepers – over the years 39 men and women in all – until 1921 when the colony was dissolved. The six remaining lepers were transported to a Louisiana hospital to stay with lepers from across the country.

A teacher at the Penikese Island School, Thomas Buckley, has spent the past couple of years researching the colony, Dr. Parker and the lepers. He acted Sunday as special Island guide.

His story was told with photos and humor, but also with an undercurrent of indignation. The day’s ceremony would right a wrong.

In 1921, Dr. Parker was 65 and ready for retirement when the colony was dissolved, its buildings marked for explosion. He applied to the state for his pension. According to Mr. Buckley, the request was denied. Dr. Parker was told that too many retirees were already on the rolls.

Dr. Parker moved to Montana and lived with his son. He would, in time, die of whooping cough, the result of his work with those who suffered the same malady.

Mr. Buckley believes the good doctor should be thanked for his heroic efforts on Penikese, no matter how many years have passed. He approached the Cuttyhunk Historical Center and they agreed to sponsor the special monument.

Preceding the formal unveiling of the rock and plaque, Mr. Buckley guided visitors through the leper graveyard, alongside which the rock was placed. The cemetery lot is beautifully serene. On the northeast corner of the treeless 74-acre island, the graves are enclosed by a green picket fence and swaying grasses, the blue bay waters were dotted with white sails on this day.

With the story of the dying man’s last words, Mr. Buckley told of a Japanese leper who tried to escape. Building a boat from wood washed ashore, the patient rowed to New Bedford and boarded a train for Boston.

Two hours after arriving in Boston, the escapee turned himself in at a hospital. He was returned to Penikese. According to Mr. Buckley, the man said upon return that he had only been in search of Japanese sauce for his fish.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox