Research Document #5
Dr. MacPherson’s Report on the Death of Gerald Gallagher
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This report was prepared by Dr. Duncan Ewan Campbell MacPherson, Assistant Director of Medical Services, Western Pacific High Commission, to the Secretary of WPHC, Henry Harrison Vaskess, on November 9, 1941. It describes the final and fatal voyage of Gerald B. Gallagher, quite possibly the man who found Amelia Earhart. His story is as tragic as hers.


[To:] The Secretary,
Western Pacific High Commission,

SUVA, 9th November, 1941.


Death of Mr. G.B. Gallagher, M.A.

It is with deep regret that I have to record, for the information of His Excellency the High Commissioner, the circumstances leading up to and terminating with the tragic death of Mr. G.B. Gallagher, Officer in Charge, Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme. From the telegraphic correspondence you are already aware of the more important of these circumstances.

2. When H.M.F.S. “Viti” left Fiji on her recent cruise, Mr. Gallagher's health had greatly improved as a result of a change of diet and environment. He was, however, suffering from a certain degree of physical and mental exhaustion owing to his complete absorption in the innumerable preliminary arrangements necessary for carrying out so complicated a programme as that marked out for the vessel. On arrival at Niulakita, a boat from H.M.F.S. “Viti” made an attempt to land. Mr. Gallagher and myself were both members of the landing party, and when it was obvious that no landing was possible through the tremendous surf prevailing, Mr. Gallagher prepared to swim through the breakers in order to ascertain the extent to which repairs were required to the existing buildings on the island. He was only dissuaded from this purpose with the greatest difficulty. I merely quote this incident as an example of the intense anxiety and zeal which he exhibited throughout the entire cruise. On arrival at Funafuti (northbound) I noticed that Mr. Gallagher appeared to be suffering a certain amount of facial pain. On examination, I found that one of his molar teeth was abscessed and that several more teeth were in process of decay. I inquired why he had not made arrangements for examination of his mouth by a dentist when in Suva, and was informed that he had fully intended to do so but had never been able to find the necessary time. I extracted the molar tooth under Evipan anaesthesia, and I then noted that even from an operation of so minor a character his recovery was unduly prolonged, and despite the rapid, complete and very successful anaesthesia induced by the Evipan, he showed some degree of shock.

3. At every stage of the voyage Mr. Gallagher worked unceasingly – often far into the night – and on occasions, when cargo was being loaded, all night. In addition to making arrangements for meetings of the natives on each island, and addressing these, he carried out all the coding and decoding of telegraphic correspondence, the volume of which was considerable. Adverse weather conditions were encountered in the Ellice Group and in the Southern Gilberts, making boat, and even canoe, landings hazardous and attended with anxiety owing to the possible loss of life and of valuable and irreplaceable stores. When such unavoidable delays occurred Mr. Gallagher gradually became obsessed with the necessity for speeding up the vessel’s schedule, and finally the saving of even a few hours time became with him a primary objective. I protested vainly, and was consequently not surprised when the vessel reached Tarawa to find that he had not only become noticeably thinner, but was in a state of advanced nervous exhaustion.

4. On our return to Tarawa from the first visit to Ocean Island, Mr. Gallagher was persuaded by Captain Holland to spend a night as his guest at Bairiki. He was brought back to Betio the following morning by Captain Hollandlooking very ill, suffering from a very painful throat, severe headache and disordered stomach. He was put to bed in his cabin on the ship, but after having discovered that he spent most of the time at a typewriter, I had him conveyed ashore to Dr. Steenson’s house and placed under the care of Mrs. Steenson and the native nurses at Tarawa Hospital. He was given treatment with Sulphanilamide and made a rapid recovery from the primary condition. Despite all attempts to induce him to remain ashore until convalescence was more advanced, he returned to his duties at the earliest possible moment. He was given a tonic mixture and made some progress, although his appearance was gaunt and it was obvious that he was still suffering from nervous exhaustion.

5. The completion of the tour and his final settlement at Gardner Island now became a complete obsession with him. He spoke of this constantly, and apparently he looked forward to a quiet period which would enable him to read the large quantity of mail which had accumulated for him at Ocean Island, and to take up the threads of his work in the Phoenix Is. For the first time during his residence in that remote Group he was very well provided with stores of all kinds, and he was particularly anxious to supervise the building of certain new structures on the station, particularly the island hospital, which he had planned to make a model of its kind. On arrival at Gardner Island the weather conditions were far from favourable, and he naturally worried a great deal about the landing of the stores and other material for which he had waited so long. The unavoidable loss of some of these stores, particularly reinforcing iron and timber, was consequently a severe disappointment. He worked incessantly during this time, sparing only an hour in which to conduct me round the Station in order that we might choose finally the site of the proposed hospital.

6. At Hull Island, I accompanied him ashore. He spent a very busy day with Mr. Cookson and the difficulties met with on embarkation again caused him anxiety, particularly as Mrs. Cookson had to be embarked. After leaving Hull Island the following morning (21st September) he informed me that he was certain he had eaten some food which was poisonous, and which had caused him to feel nauseated and finally to vomit. I questioned him minutely as to what he had eaten and could not find that he had partaken of any item different from a number of other persons on the ship. He told me, however, that he had had similar attacks of vomiting at Nikunau and Beru which he had attributed in one instance to tinned mushrooms, and in the other to fish. He had apparently been very ill on both occasions, and this was corroborated by his servant, Aram Tamia. He was given the usual remedies, but the vomiting continued at intervals, and it became apparent that he was suffering from a severe gastritis. I persuaded him to remain in bed while I went ashore at Sydney Island to ascertain the state of affairs there.

7. After leaving Sydney Island on the 22nd the vomiting continued, but as the ship was pitching considerably, and as the stomach was then empty and had been washed out by means of a stomach tube, the vomitus consisted mainly of bile and of fluids taken, which were returned very soon after being swallowed. The bowels were open, although there was a tendency to constipation. Pulse and temperature were within normal limits. There was no rigidity or distension in the abdomen, and no pain on palpation. The patient was by this time quite convinced that the movement of the vessel was exacerbating the vomiting. He was not a good sailor in a seaway and had on several occasions during the voyage been sea sick in the boats. I noted this particularly while the vessel was at Beru for the purpose of embarking emigrants for the Phoenix Group.

8. We arrived at Canton Island on the 23rd September. The weather was then good and the anchorage calm. The sickness had abated and the patient looked brighter. He complained at times of slight colicky pain in the epigastric region. I went into his past medical history very closely and paid particular attention to the fact that he had/an abdominal operation for appendicitis. I also ascertained that he had on occasions during the past two years suffered from colic and nausea, particularly when climbing ship’s masts or similar exertion. He had also been ill for the greater part of the journey from England to Australia when he first came out to take up his appointment in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. He was on that occasion accompanied by Messrs. Wernham and Bevington. Tuberculosis had apparently been suspected by the ship’s surgeon, and among his effects I found a skiagram of the chest taken at the British Hospital, Port Said. Apparently no confirmation of the shi’s surgeon's suspicions was obtained.

9. Before going ashore at Canton Island, I left instructions with Native Medical Practitioner Tekai, who was on board, that he should be given a special enema. I also forbade him to drink large quantities of iced water, iced mineral waters and fruit juices, which I discovered he had been taking although I had previously given instructions that he was to have broken ice only to suck, and small drinks containing glucose. After going ashore I arranged with Dr. Franklin, Surgeon stationed at the Pan-American Airport at Canton Island, to return with me to the vessel and examine Mr. Gallagher. This Dr. Franklin very kindly did, and he investigated the history most thoroughly and made a most careful examination. Dr. Franklin, I may add, had just completed two years continuous surgical experience in a very large hospital in San Francisco. We both agreed that there had been a gastritis which had probably been made more severe by sea conditions. We both suspected there might be some chronic partial obstruction, but were quite unable to find any corroboratory signs, and decided that expectant treatment was all that could, at that time, be undertaken justifiably. As I felt considerable anxiety about Mr. Gallagher's general condition, and realised that his resistance was exceedingly low, I discussed with him the question of detaining the vessel at Canton until I could make telegraphic representations to His Excellency, or alternatively, that he should remain at Canton Island under the care of Dr. Franklin, who would, if he deemed it necessary, doubtless make arrangements for the Pan-American clipper to take him to hospital in Honululu or Noumea. (Even had he remained at Canton Island, however, I do not consider that he would have lived to be transported by Clipper to either of these airports.) Mr. Gallagher had been informed that he would receive an important telegram before the vessel left the Phoenix Islands, but, not having received it, as he thought, at Canton Island, he assumed that it would be awaiting him at Gardner Island, the chosen last port of call in that Group. He was, therefore, very agitated by the prospect of remaining at Canton Island. He further assured me that he felt he would only recover in his own house on Gardner Island and amidst his own native people. I, therefore, did not feel justified in pursuing the matter owing to the adverse reaction his mental state was undoubtedly having on his physical condition. I had previously consulted the Commander of H.M.F.S. “Viti” on the question of remaining at Canton Island, but he pointed out that in accordance with the prearranged schedule of the vessel a stay of only twenty-four hours was permitted at Canton Island, and he had received no instructions to vary these arrangements.

10. After leaving Canton Island, your telegram (unnumbered) of the 30th September was decoded by Mr. Hogan, and its contents were communicated to Mr. Gallagher. Its effect on him in his then agitated mental and weak physical state was profound. He told me that he felt that he was “at the end of his tether”, and that he proposed to go ashore at Gardner Island and remain there until he was well.

11. We arrived at Gardner Island about noon on the 24th September and owing to tidal difficulties a landing could not be effected until the late afternoon. He was carried on a mattress to his own house, which is at a considerable distance from the landing place. He was more cheerful that evening and passed a more tranquil night than any since the commencement of his illness. Physical signs were still absent. He proved an extremely difficult patient to manage, insisting on trying all kinds of foods for which he had a passing fancy, and refusing to be washed or otherwise nursed in any way. I fortunately had the assistance of two nurses, Nei Maria, stationed on Gardner Island, and Tafola, proceeding on transfer from Tarawa to Funafuti – in addition to those of Native Medical Practitioner Tekai, and Dresser Vaiaga. His condition was, therefore, watched continuously. I had decided that if the apparent improvement was maintained, I would take him to Funafuti.

12. During the night of the 25th September, he apparently contrived to swallow some purgative tablets which he was in the habit of using, and which I had refused to let him have. I suspected that something of this kind had occurred when he began to have renewed attacks of severe colicky pain. He was given a hypodermic injection of morphia with atropine to relieve this. He also became very excited, declaring that the Government was “letting the settlers down”, that he felt himself quite unfitted for secretarial duties, etc. During the forenoon of the next day (26th September) it became apparent that his condition was rapidly becoming grave. Distension appeared in the upper part of the abdomen. There was no movement of the bowels. The tongue which had been remarkably clean hitherto, became heavily furred, the temperature was slightly elevated and the pulse rate became rapid. His colour, however, was good. There was no pain on abdominal palpation. I informed the Commander of H.M.F.S. “Viti” that I feared it would be necessary for me to perform an emergency operation, and preparations for this were immediately begun. Lieut-Commander Mullins sent Mr. Whysall, the Chief Engineer, and several other of his officers ashore to assist in any way possible. Mr. Gallagher, immediately I informed him of the need for an operation, gave me his full sanction to do anything I felt necessary, and further said that he was glad that anything that required to be done should be done on Gardner Island.

13. By the time all preparations for the operation were completed darkness was falling. Signs of intestinal obstruction were now apparent. Mental prostration and exhaustion were marked, vomiting had recommended and was now faecal in type. The question of the anaesthetic gave me much anxiety owing to the persistence of the vomiting. The anaesthetic of choice in such cases is of the spinal variety, and no such was available. The stomach was washed out with sodium bicarbonate solution, and Native Medical Practitioner Tekai anaesthetised the patient with a chloroform-aether mixture. I may say that Native Medical Practitioner Tekai carried out this difficult task with a degree of skill, care, and detachment which would have done credit to a specialist anaethetist in a London Hospital. The abdomen was opened in the middle line. I was immediately struck by the almost total absence of subcutaneous fat. When the peritoneum was opened some fluid was found, but no evidence of pus. The fluid was extremely evil smelling and reminiscent of gas gangrene infection. There was ballooning of the large intestine, and this was followed to the caecum which was bound down by old adhesions. A few inches from the ileocecal valve a mass of adhesions had caused “kinking” of the gut, and must have been productive of a partial obstruction for some considerable time. The walls of the large intestine exhibited a most remarkable appearance, being no thicker than tissue paper, and highly suggestive of the disease, resulting from malnutrition, and known as Sprue. There was no actual gangrene present, but injection of the bowel walls was marked, and here and there small infarctions producing dark blotches had occurred. Thrombosis of several branches of the mesenteric artery was also evident. I relieved the obstruction and performed a caecostomy. Great difficulty was found in suturing the bowel wall to the peritoneum owing to the extreme thinness of the former. I completed the operation as rapidly as possible, tubes being inserted for drainage of the peritoneal cavity. I was much handicapped by the lack of certain instruments such as large abdominal retractors and proper bowel clamps. H.M.F.S. “Viti”, while well equipped for carrying out emergency operation such as amputations and the repair of wounds, etc., in the event of accident or enemy action, does not normally carry equipment to deal with other varieties of major surgery. Artificial lighting presented a problem, but was solved by the Chief Engineer of the ship, who stood near me directing the light from a 5 cell electric torch directly on the operation area. Intravenous saline and glucose were given immediately the operation was completed. Mr. Gallagher’s condition was then good, and he made a rapid recovery from the anaesthetic. I realised, however, that his resistance was very low and that toxaemia would rapidly decrease this. He became fully conscious about 8 p.m. He recognised those who spoke to him, talked quite coherently and sensibly, and stated that he felt comfortable. About 11 p.m. he became restless, excited in his speech and semi-delirious at times. He was then given a hypodermic injection of morphia and atropine. It was apparent that he was sinking rapidly, and although capable of being roused and able to recognise individuals he gradually became comatose. The pulse rate was almost uncountable, and I informed the Native Magistrate and others that the end was near. They assembled round his bed, and those who profess Roman Catholicism, led by Mr. Hogan, sat by his bed and offered him the spiritual consolation which the rites of the Roman Catholic Church provide for the dying. His passing at 12.17 a.m. On the 27th September was completely peaceful.

14. While the nurses and other women performed the last offices, Mr. Whysall, Sergeant Corner, Private Burns, Mr. McGowan, and Temou (native carpenter at Gardner Island) proceeded to prepare a casket for the remains. This was completed by 6 a.m. and was a very fine piece of work. The natives kept watch throughout the night, the Catholic members reciting appropriate prayers. At dawn, with the assistance of Mr. Whysall, I pegged out an area at the base of the flagstaff in an east and west direction and a grave was prepared, and lined with coconut fronds. The interment was arranged for 10 a.m. Before that time Lieut-Commander Mullins and such members of the officers and crew of the vessel as could be spared, assembled at the house. The total number of Europeans present was thirteen. The coffin was draped with a new Union Jack and was carried on the shoulders of representative numbers of Europeans, Fijians, Ellice Islanders and Gilbertese. At the graveside Lieut-Commander Mullins read the burial service of the Roman Catholic Church and the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” was sung by the Europeans present. Lieut-Commander Mullins spoke a few simple and appropriate words (a copy of which have already been given to His Excellency). The Protestant natives sang a hymn in Ellice, and subsequently Maheo, an Ellice Islander, and one of the native wireless operators, paid a simple, eloquent and most touching tribute (in English) to Mr. Gallagher’s memory. After the grave had been filled in, the native women on the station placed garlands of bush flowers around it.

15. I have unfortunately during my Colonial service been present at the deathbed and subsequent interment of a number of my brother officers and colleagues, but never have I seen deeper manifestations of sorrow on the part of both natives and Europeans alike, than I witnessed on this occasion. The whole setting of this sad scene was impressive, and to any onlooker would have presented a striking picture. A dense mass of green bush in the background the glistening white coral sand of the Government Station with its careful planning and its wide avenues fringed with young coconut palms, the bright cloudless sky, the infinite variety and gradations of colour in the lagoon in the foreground, the myriads of seabirds wheeling overhead, the group of Europeans wearing Service uniform and natives clad in spotless Sunday garb – all assembled bareheaded beneath the flagstaff where the flag was flying at half-mast.

16. After the funeral, preparations were made to deal with Mr. Gallagher’'s effects, and the arrangements regarding these have already formed the subject of separate communications to you.

17. I had decided long prior to Mr. Gallagher’s illness that it was incumbent on me on my return to Fiji to write semi-officially to His Excellency the High Commissioner and express my personal admiration of the excellent work which this young officer had accomplished during the short time that the direction of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme had been in his hands. The vision and judgment which he showed in the laying out of the new settlement will be apparent to all who may have occasion to visit the Phoenix Islands in future, and will remain, I trust, as an enduring monument to a faithful and able officer, and a very gallant gentleman. There is a Gaelic saying that no man is capable of judging the worth of another until they “have burned seven stacks of peat together”. I was fortunate in having such a prolonged opportunity in which to assess the fine qualities which the late Mr. Gallagher possessed in full measure, and which he hid beneath so shy and unassuming a manner. It was evident that all those natives who came into contact with him loved and trusted him, and he was devoted to their interests and anxious to do all in his power to secure the betterment of their lot. He was undoubtedly of a delicate constitution and probably suffered much in silence for the cause of duty. I am convinced that, had it not been for the thoughtfulness and care which have invariably been exhibited by His Excellency the High Commissioner towards his young officers serving in remote outposts of the lonely Western Pacific groups and caused him to extend much personal kindness and hospitality to Mr. Gallagher (which were warmly appreciated by him) this tragedy might well have occurred earlier in this officer’s service.

18. I have felt compelled to enter into considerable detail in regard to this sad occurrence, and I regret that I also feel it to be my duty to direct attention to the fact that Mr. Gallagher’'s death was largely attributable to malnutrition, which undoubtedly resulted from the fact that no steps appear to have been taken by Headouarters at Ocean Island to ensure that he, and other officers serving on out-stations, are at least kept supplied with the fundamental necessities for the support of life and the maintenance of health. The struggle which must invariably exist, for an officer brought up in the generous plenty of a British home to adapt himself to both the climatic and environmental conditions of a remote and relatively barren Pacific Island, must indeed be severe during the early years of his service. Expeditionary forces and exploratory expeditions are planned with the utmost care and forethought by those responsible for their equipment and provisioning. Young officers appointed to the Colonial Service are carefully selected from among the best material provided by great public schools and universities given special training and then posted, with little preliminary initiation, to places where they find themselves suddenly and completely deprived of all the amenities to which they have been accustomed from birth. The results for Government are not infrequently bad from an economic and administrative point of view, and for the officer himself they are often disastrous. I am aware that during the past few years this point has been fully appreciated by the Western Pacific High Commission, and particularly by His Excellency the present High Commissioner, and great improvements have been effected, such as the provision of refrigerators, etc. I do not consider, however, that this is sufficient I recently had the opportunity of noting the arrangements made by the New Zealand Government for the settling of wireless operators and soldiers on various islands. I was much impressed by the wise and ample selection of stores, medical supplies and comforts with which these groups had been provided, and it was to me a sad reflection that after almost fifty years of British rule in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the local Administration still appeared to be indifferent to the necessity for some similar measures. It is impossible to escape the obvious inferences from the observed facts. As you are aware, the preventive aspects of medicine, which would appear to be the obvious ones, and which were in fact stressed long ago by Moses, have until recent years been neglected in comparison with the curative aspects. Similarly, a measure of care, foresight and planning would, I feel, do much to prevent the physical and mental deterioration which has on occasions manifested itself in those who at the outset of their official career showed marked promise and ability.

19. From the result of conversations in the past, I feel certain that His Excellency the High Commissioner and yourself will be in substantial agreement with the foregoing paragraph.

20. In conclusion, I wish to express my very sincere appreciation for the great help and support for my actions under very difficult and trying circumstances so promptly given by telegram by His Excellency the High Commissioner and officers of the Western Pacific High Commission; also my great indebtedness to Lieut-Commander Mullins, Flying Officer Hogan (who kept a continuous wireless watch for 92 hours), Mr. Whysall, Chief Engineer, Sergeant Corner and all the officers and crew of H.M.F.S. “Viti”.

I have the honour to be,
Your obedient servant,

D.C.M. MacPherson

Assistant Director of Medical Services, Fiji
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