Doc’s Story

Ralph (Robert) Leslie “Doc” Cooke was the Superintendent of the “Leper Colony” at Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, from 1925 to 1939. This is the story of his time there, as told through documents and newspaper clippings.


Chief Electrician R.L.Cooke (left), on unidentified ship with crew member. My grandmother said that he was considered the fastest telegrapher in the Navy.

After the Navy, R.L. Cooke was hired by the Mutual Telephone Company of Honolulu to head their wireless department..


“Has-Beens” Win Five Innings

The ‘Has Beens’, a ball team composed of most of the executives and department heads of the Mutual Telephone Company and many of whom had not played a game of ball since Hector was a pup, were challenged to play a five inning game for a Chinese dinner by a bunch calling themselves ‘The Bust Egg Aggregation’, most of the players being members of the telephone company’s Commercial league team.

Doc Cook, pitching for the winners, had something on the ball besides the cover and showed some of his old-time form.

For years attempts had been made to install radio receivers that would enable the patients of the Kalaupapa Leper Settlement to hear radio. All previous attempts had failed. Often called “the loneliest place in the world”, the settlement was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

One day, Doc was sent to Kalaupapa to make another attempt at installing the receivers. Where all others had failed previously, he was successful.
The people of Kalaupapa considered him a “Kahuna” of great power.



Radio Breaks Barrier For Lepers

Lonesomest Colony in Hawaii Hears KDKA Programme and Many Other Stations.

Enjoyment that radio broadcasting has brought to those isolated from the rest of the world is shown in a communication just received at Station KDKA, from the Kalaupapa leper settlement on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, said to be the loneliest place in the world.
Recently under the personal supervision of R.L.Cooke, superintendent of the wireless department of the Mutual Telephone Company of Honolulu, two radio receivers were installed in the leper colony. The radio sets were equipped with A.C. power amplifier which was installed in the amusement hall; while another set for ear phone reception was installed in the superintendent’s home.
The first time the sets were placed in operation, KFKX, the repeating station at Hastings, Neb., was received repeating KDKA’s programme. Then a few minutes later KDKA was picked direct. Later KDKA was again received with such good volume that the music and other entertainment could be heard about 100 yards outside of the hall.
There are about 600 people in the Molokai leper settlement. About 400 were present for the first radio night.
In the future these afflicted people, outcast from the remainder of the human race, will at least hear from the outside world through the medium of the radio wave. Radio broadcasting has again proved itself the marvel of the present century.



Cooke Regarded Highly Because Of Radio Skill

It came as a surprise when the Board of Health selected R.L. Cooke to be the new Superintendent of the leper settlement at Kalaupapa. But they knew they needed someone the patients would respect, and he had won that respect by bringing radio to them when all others had failed.




Record Of Marriage

December 30, 1925 ~ He was 37 and she was 23. This was his 3rd marriage and her 2nd. Her first was to Scott H. Foster in 1920 – it didn’t last long. They had one child – a boy, Scott Foster Jr.






Letter To The Editor

“…everything went along smoothly in the eighth rule of sociability…” A letter to the editor describing a party held for R.L. Cooke in honor of his first anniversary at the settlement. The “hit” of the evening was a special speech given by Cooke in both English and Hawaiian.






Drifted On Beach

Two years after the submarine USS F-4 foundered, a brush inscribed “R. L. Cooke USS F-4” was found washed up on shore. A newspaper article described the finding of the brush and erroneously reported that “Chief Electrician Cooke was lost when the F-4 foundered during diving operations off Honolulu”. All 21 crew members perished (see articles below). Doc’s submarine was actually the USS K-7 (SS-38). In my research I’ve seen crew lists and photos, and Doc was not among them, so obviously there was some wear to the brush and the K-7 was mistaken for an F-4, or it was unreadable and since the sub had sunk in Honolulu Harbor, it was assumed this was a remnant of that disaster.

About the USS F-4
“F-4 was one of the first submarines assigned to the new naval facility at Pearl Harbor in the years prior to World War I. On March 25, 1915, the submarine vanished on routine patrol, and was later discovered a mile off Fort Armstrong, 300 feet underwater.

No one had ever salvaged a vessel from such a depth before, and Navy attempts proved fruitless for several months. One diver was later awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing another diver at the crushing depths. Finally, using specially constructed pontoons, the submarine was raised on August 31, 1915 and towed to Pearl Harbor.

After so many months underwater, only four of the 21 dead aboard the submarine could be identified. The 17 remaining bodies were sealed in four caskets and shipped to Arlington National Cemetery, where they were buried in a common grave. The headstone, the size of an individual marker, is marked simply ’17 Unknown U.S. Sailors Victims of the USS F-4 March 25 1915.'”

“USS F-4 (SS-23) was christened SKATE and was renamed F-4 on 17 November 1911.
Joining the 1st Submarine Group, Pacific Torpedo Flotilla, F-4 participated in the development operations of that group along the west coast, and from August 1914, in Hawaiian waters. During submarine maneuvers off Honolulu on 25 March 1915 she sank in 51 fathoms, 1 1/2 miles from the harbor. Despite valorous efforts of naval authorities at Honolulu to locate the missing boat and save her crew, all 21 perished.”






Letters From The People

It was 1926 and Prohibition was still being enforced. Apparently, E.S. Gaddis, Acting Superintendent of something or other had written a previous letter to the editor of the Advertiser complaining about the lack of adherence to the Volstead Law on the four islands he had visited while making his rounds of the 5 big islands. However, after visiting Molokai, the last island on his rounds, he praised Kalaupapa as the “near Sahara dry spot of all the Hawaiian Territory”.




Leper Settlement Brought Up To High Sanitary Standards

An article by M.P.Correa, Jr. (author of the 1st Anniversary letter) commending all concerned for their efforts in improving conditions at the settlement. He reports that death rates had decreased considerably.




R.L. Cooke Out As Director At Leper Colony

Two and a half years after his appointment as Superintendent of the settlement, Doc sent in his letter of resignation. He gave no reason for the decision and asked the Board of Health to “accept my sincere appreciation of your kind cooperation and assistance during our official association.”




McVeigh To Quiz Cooke Resignation From Kalaupapa

J.D. McVeigh, supervising member of the Board of Health decides to go to Molokai to learn the reason for Cooke’s resignation.




They Want “Doc” Cooke To Remain

A plea from the patients to the Board of Health to raise the wages of the settlement Superintendent to that earned by the executive members of the medical staff.

“Since Mr. Cooke took charge in July of 1925…the settlement has been cleaned up, buildings repaired and painted, rats exterminated and the lantana cleared away.”

Mr Cooke is good to us….and the best of all, everybody receives a square deal. He is well likes and during the two years he has been here there has not been one complaint. For years there had been complaints about Kalaupapa and the Kalihi receiving staion for lepers and when we do get a good superintendent something goes wrong with the board of health. Please have Mr. Cooke’s salary raised and ask Mr. Cooke to withdraw his resignation.”





 Extra Guards At Kalihi To Stop Escapes

14 patients escaped from the Kalihi hospital by jumping the fence. They were all over 16 and were ordered transferred to Molokai. The article then goes on to say that on August 13 the patients at Kalaupapa held a mass meeting to sign a petition urging the board of health to induce Superintendent Cooke to stay. There were 439 patients present at the meetings, and a copy of the petition was also sent to Governor Farrington.




Cooke Will Be Asked To Stay At Settlement

“A letter asking Cooke to reconsider will be sent, it was decided at the regular board meeting yesterday, following the reading of a petition signed by 439 inmates of the settlement addressed to the board. The petition requested the board ‘to take some action whereby Cooke will be retained as superintendent,’ because of his able and capable management of the settlement.”



appeals“Appeals from the inmates of the leper settlement at Molokai have been effective. The board of health yesterday voted to send a letter to R.L. Cooke, superintendent who recently sent in a letter of resignation, asking him to reconsider.”




Cooke Will Continue At Settlement

 A quote from Cooke reads: “In view of the fact that those directly concerned – that is the people of Kalaupapa have seen fit to express their appreciation of present conditions at the settlement and that the board of health has kindly considered their petition – there is no other sporting alternative than continuing on with the work.”

 The article goes on to say that “Cooke has proved one of the most popular superintendents that the settlement has ever had.”

When asked if his resignation was based on any monetary consideration he replied: “Money in this kind of work means nothing. What is important is the amount of good that you can do. We have Brother Dutton who has spent years of his life at Kalaupapa without any salary at all. And then I have been told by one of Honolulu’s wealthiest men that he would not take my job for $1,000 a month. The important thing is to make the unfortunate inmates of Kalaupapa happy – to make their life livable.”




Letter From Royal Consulate of Belgium

 Ralph. L. Cooke. Esq.
Superintendent of the Leper Settlement
Kalaupapa. Molokai.

 In the name of His Majesty, Kin Leopold III of Belgium, in the name of His Government as well as in my own, I wish to extend to you our very sincere thanks and appreciation for your very efficient help in connection with the removal of the Reverend Father Damien’s mortal remains from Kalawao, Molokai.

 The arrangements you made to bring this task to an end were absolutely perfect in all their details, they have been highly praised by all those who were present on this occasion.

 I have taken great pride in mentioning your good work in my report to our Minister of Foreign Affairs.

 Very respectfully yours,

 Victor. H. Lappe.
Consul of Belgium
Honolulu. T. – H.




Molokai Colony Leader Amazed At City’s Gain

His first vacation in 21 years, he and Wilhelmina stayed at the Hollywood Knickerbocker. The article mentions his recent prominence for his arrangements regarding the remains of Father Damien.




Utah Visited By Leader Of Leper Colony

 On to Ogden, Utah, where the reporter misspelled Cooke and pretty much made it up as he went along….




Death Takes Superintendent Of Kalaupapa

 “…died at his official quarters at Kalaupapa Wednesday night from a heart attack.”

 During a recent session of the legislature a bill was introduced in the house of representatives providing a life pension of $200 a month for Mr. Cooke, whose early retirement was at that time in view. It was then understood that the superintendent’s health made advisable an early change of locality.”

 No mention is made of his children, only that he was survived by his wife.




Letter of Remembrance

Madam, My dear Friends:

During fourteen years Mr. Cooke was Superintendent of this Settlement. God has given all the gifts which conquer sympathy, an imposing stature, a sculptural head, a charming smile, a strong personality, and above all a natural gift of authority.

 He knew how to command without hurting anybody. He suggested rather than commanded, and as Shakespeare said, “He enforced his suggestions more by his smile than by the sword”.

 He tried always to put out all motive of discord, to establish peace amongst us. (Blessed are the peace makers, for they shall be called the children of God.)

 Occasions do not make men, but reveal them. I will always remember when the two Frenchmen were in distress, with what courage Mr. Cooke jumped into the little boat and seizing an oar, encouraged cheerfully those who went to save them at the peril of their lives.

 His religion, he always said, was “The Golden Rule”. It was true, and that is why today, we are all deeply moved at his sudden death.

 May God be merciful to him. May God bless Mrs. Cooke, whose sweet rememberance amongst us will remain associated with him in our prayers, and in our hearts. May God bless his children, born amongst us. May God console them, with their mother, and strength accompany them during their lives with our constant gratitude.

 Let us say for him the prayer of the Saviour, which unites all of us:


Kalaupapa, May 18th, 1939