Carmelo GhioCarmelo Ghio

A small silver box that had belonged to my late wife, inscribed A mio padre – da Sydney. 1884 aroused my interest as to its origin. I eventually discovered that it was a present given by Carmelo Ghio – my late wife’s great-grand­father – to his father. Ghio had died exactly 100 years ago, on June 29, 1914.

He was born on June 29, 1855. His father, Antonio, was born in Senglea; his parents came from Genoa. He was chief police physician until 1885 and played a leading role in cholera epidemics in Malta, particularly the one of 1865. Ghio’s mother was Carmela neé Borg; she died in 1859 when he was only four years old. From a young age Ghio showed an interest in medicine and despite his father’s advice to the contrary, he joined the course of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Malta and graduated in 1880.

A few months later, in December 1880, Ghio joined the British Colonial Medical Service and was stationed in the Fiji islands. He was probably the first Maltese doctor who practised his profession in Fiji, which had been ceded to Britain in 1874.

Ghio’s first appointment was that of assistant medical officer in Levuka, a town on the eastern coast of the island of Ovalau, which was then the capital city of Fiji. In the space of a few months he was promoted to medical officer, and later to principal medical officer.

Vincenzo Tabone (left) and Carmelo Ghio in Fiji in 1882.Vincenzo Tabone (left) and Carmelo Ghio in Fiji in 1882.

In 1882 he met another Maltese doctor, Vincenzo Tabone, who graduated with him in 1880 and who had been appointed assistant surgeon in Rodrigues Island (Mauritius) and Fiji by the Surgeon General of the Maltese Islands, Sir William Alexander McKinnon.

Ghio was transferred to Suva in September 1883, when this city became the new official capital city of Fiji. This move had been prompted by concerns that the high cliffs surrounding Levuka gave it no room for expansion; besides Suva, being on the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu, was more accessible. In Suva, Ghio was also appointed chief medical officer at the Department of Immigration.

In the late 1800s, large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was developed in Queensland, Australia as well as in Fiji and other nearby islands. For this reason many thousands of labourers were brought to the islands from India to work the plantations. Sugar plantation development and island recruiting were at their height between 1880 and 1883, at the time that Ghio worked in Fiji.

Workers suffered from many diseases that Ghio must have become very familiar with: principal among them tuberculosis, intestinal infections and malnutrition.

He was probably the first Maltese doctor who practised in Fiji

Mortality rates among the Indian labourers, who were predominantly men aged between 15 and 35, were five to six times higher than those among white residents of Queensland of all ages.

We can get an idea of the atrocious conditions in which the workers lived from a report sent by Ghio to the Colonial Office on June 18, 1881 (81/1429) quoted in A History of the Pacific Islands by Deryck Scarr. Ghio describes “six plantation workers found dead and 28 reduced to skin and bone on the estate of the biggest landowner in Suva… Their blood is poor, the spleen enlarged, and they had fever. They might fall back by going into the river or exposing themselves to cold wet nights; they ate shellfish, frogs, lizards, spiders, grasshoppers for more protein than plantation rations provided”.

Ghio (right) is seen seated next to Alphonse Maria Galea (left) and Fr Antonio Urso, first spiritual director of St Patrick’s.Ghio (right) is seen seated next to Alphonse Maria Galea (left) and Fr Antonio Urso, first spiritual director of St Patrick’s.

The chief medical officer in Fiji at the time was the Scottish-born Dr (later Sir) William McGregor. As chief medical officer he had to grapple with a massive epidemic of measles in Fiji, which resulted in the death of about a third of the population in 1876. McGregor was to become an eminent civil administrator of various British territories – being appointed over the years governor of New Guinea, Lagos colony in Nigeria, Queensland and finally Newfoundland.

He had a high opinion of Ghio and wrote about him: “No better person than Dr Ghio could have been chosen because he is richly endowed with the best possible qualities to deal with patients – a sound scientific knowledge, patience, perseverance, and refinement.”

During his stay in Fiji, Ghio also gained the trust of Cacobau, ruler of Fiji. Cacobau was a Fijian warlord who united the various warring tribes under his leadership and established the foundations of modern Fiji, which he ceded to Britain in 1874. Cacobau was a former cannibal but was converted to Christianity in 1854 by Rev. Joseph Waterhouse, a Methodist minister. Cacobau wanted Ghio to become his personal doctor and that of his household; however, nothing came out of this offer as Cacobau died soon after, in 1883.

During his stay in Fiji, Ghio interested himself in other activities. He studied languages and literature and also took up painting as a hobby. He was described as follows: “Concosceva assai bene diverse lingue moderne ed era appassionato cultore della letteratura.” (L’Avvenire, July 4, 1914)

The small silver box that started it all.The small silver box that started it all.

However, it seems that after some time he felt homesick, and in the early months of 1884 he decided to return to Malta. Nevertheless, he could not resist the temptation of prolonging his journey back home, and on the way he went to Australia, where he visited Melbourne, Sydney (where he bought the silver box referred to at the beginning of the article) and New South Wales.

Ghio returned to Malta in 1884. During his visit he met a young lady whom he had known when he was a medical student. Following a short courtship they got married in July 1884. The lady was Elvira Caruana, daughter of Melitone Caruana, superintendent of the Malta Police Force. One of her cousins was Dom Maurus Caruana who became archbishop of Malta in 1915.

It seems marriage was an incentive for Ghio to resume working, but in a different way that many of his close family and friends were expecting. They, as well as his father, now 68 years old and in what was to be his last year as chief police physician, urged him to remain in Malta. However, wanderlust must have taken a firm hold on him. His young wife was not at all keen on going abroad, leaving home, family and friends, especially so soon after getting married. However, she was more attached to her husband and so accompanied him in his new venture.

In August 1884 they left on their ‘honeymoon’ – a new journey of what turned out to be work and sacrifice. On the way to Australia they stopped in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The governor at the time was Sir Arthur Gordon (later Baron Stanmore), who was previously governor of Fiji, where he had come to know Ghio. Sir Arthur made it a point to visit the Ghios and managed to convince them to remain in Sri Lanka.

Probably the challenges of a new country, dealing with different people and different diseases, must have been important motivations for Ghio to accept the offer. He was appointed head of laboratory, with the responsibility of carrying out post-mortems, visiting (and later chief) medical officer of the prisons department in Colombo and Galle (a major city in the southwestern tip of Sri Lanka) and medical officer of Lock hospitals.

The latter were hospitals specialised in the treatment of venereal diseases, originally set up in England and later in various British territories. There were three such hospitals in Ceylon. The name of these hospitals probably comes from the practice that inmates were only released on orders of a magistrate. Venereal disease was an ever-growing problem in Sri Lanka. The total number of patients with venereal diseases seen in the Lock and military hospitals more than doubled between 1878 and 1886 – from 636 to 1463.

In 1886, Elvira developed a serious illness and after a long period of convalescence was anxious to return to Malta. They had no children yet and she wanted their first child to be born in Malta. She managed to convince her husband, and on their return to Malta he joined the government service. In 1887 he was appointed district medical officer (DMO) 2nd class, for Msida, Pietà and Ħamrun, where he lived at 248 D, Strada San Giuseppe.

He was promoted to DMO 1st class for Valletta in 1894. By then he and his family had moved to 58, Strada Brittanica, Valletta, the same house where Elvira had lived before her marriage. The various duties of DMOs, class 1 and 2, are included in a collection of papers on the Maltese civil service that had been written by the late Judge Roberto Federico Ganado (1875-1948) and soon to be published in book form by the author’s son, Dr Albert Ganado.

Other appointments followed: resident medical officer at the Infectious Diseases Hospital, Lazaretto – where great improvements had taken place during the cholera epidemic of 1865 at the insistence of his father, Antonio; medical officer of the reformatory, St Patrick’s, Sliema, DMO for Sliema and St Julian’s, and in 1907, medical officer to the newly built Zammit Clapp Hospital, where the Seamen’s Hospital had been transferred. By this time the Ghios had gone to live in Sliema, at 10, Victoria Junction.

Dr Ghio was very meticulous in his duties. The following is an extract from an editorial entitled ‘The Hospitals’, published in The Malta Herald (September 4, 1911 “It is true that the DMO of Sliema who has been appointed visiting physician and surgeon to the Seamen’s Hospital has already a vast expanse of area under his charge – the thickly populated suburbs of St Julian’s and St George’s Bay in addition to Sliema. He has also sanitary duties to perform, which are not of a light nature – in fact, he is overburdened with work, which Dr Ghio performs with zeal, satisfying even the imprudent exigencies” of some of his patients.

Wanderlust must have taken a firm hold on him

He recognised the first case of the cholera epidemic that broke out in 1911, as reported in The Malta Herald (October 16, 1911 “A case of cholera in Strada Santa Maria, Sliema, being a female of recent arrival from Tripoli. The case presented indications and symptoms of cholera, and the DMO, Dr Carmelo Ghio, in a very wise and prudent measure, transferred her to Lazaretto, where it is believed she is doing well.” Incidentally, this news item was entitled ‘No cause for alarm’.

Ghio was reserved and unassuming, described as having “una modestia quasi eccessiva” (L’Avvenire, July 4, 1914) and “a man of a quiet, retiring disposition, and so he was not very widely known. But those who did know him intimately readily acknowledged that he was a most admirable man of uncommon ability. A loving, tender husband, a most exemplary father, profoundly devoted to his family, an upright, honourable friend, truly charitable to the poor and needy whose professional services were ever at their disposal, regardless of personal sacrifice of time and attention”. (The Malta Herald, July1-2, 1911)

Elvira and Carmelo had eight children – six girls and two boys – who were all born in Malta. One of the boys, Carlo, is mentioned in Herbert Ganado’s Rajt Malta Tinbidel (Vol.1 p338). The following extract is reproduced from Michael Refalo’s translation of Ganado’s work, My Century:

“Archbishop Caruana’s cousin, Carlo Ghio, joined the MUSEUM. Carlo, a pleasant, though slightly eccentric youth, whose enthusiasm was perhaps often excessive, had spoken to the archbishop about the MUSEUM and must have increased the archbishop’s concerns, so much so that Archbishop Caruana banged on his desk and said ‘as long as I am bishop of this diocese I will not give that organisation official recognition’.” (Vol.2, p171).

Fortunately, the archbishop, who did not often go back on his word, must have softened his original approach and eventually gave approval for the Society of Christian Doctrine to be set up by Dun (later St) George Preca. Carlo was a member of Gioventú Cattolica and he did missionary work in Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). He died in Rome in 1937.

The other brother, Antonio, emigrated to the US. Two of the daughers died young. Of the other four, Helen married Alberto Bonello (whose sister Matilde married the Gozitan notary Giuseppe Camilleri); Emma was married to Joseph Izzo (nephew of Giuseppe Cali) – she was widowed at a young age and had no children; and two spinsters, Beatrice and Laura, both of whom, as well as Emma, died in the 1980s.

Ghio died on his birthday, June 29, 1914, at the age of 59. The following is the conclusion of the appreciation, written by ‘A friend’ that appeared in The Malta Herald of July 1-2, 1914:

“He goes down to the grave bequeathing his well-beloved family an inheritance of which they may be justly be well proud, an unsullied name and notable examples of goodness and virtue as husband and father. The nursing sisters of Zammit Clapp Hospital and St Patrick’s Institute of Sliema, where he was always a cherished friend and guest, as well as a fatherly medical adviser, are sure to feel in a particular manner the untimely end of the dear deceased. …The funeral, which by his express instructions was private, took place yesterday at 8am from his residence, Victoria Junction, Sliema.”

Carmel Mallia is a visiting professor of Medicine at the University of Malta.

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