With the current fear and confusion caused by the outbreak of Wuhan coronavirus, it's timely to remember Australia was gripped by the fear of another virus 100 years ago - the so-called Spanish Flu.
Dr Donnelly, with a dish of boiling water and a jar of vaccine on a table before him, leans forward as each arm is presented and, with hypodermic syringe in hand, makes the inoculation by quickly forcing the needle about an inch upwards under the skin... the syringe is quickly dipped in boiling water... and the next inoculation is made.
The Ballarat Star, March 1919.
Following the end of World War One, troops returning to Australia brought home with them an unwelcome passenger - the H1N1 influenza virus.
An outbreak of what became known as the 'Spanish Flu' had begun in Europe in the Northern Hemisphere summer of 1918, around July. This was an uncommon time for the virus to be active, and it soon proved itself to be a deadly variation.
Called 'Spanish' because Spain had not imposed the levels of censorship other countries were using to control information about the horror of the illness and therefore appeared more severely affected, the virus killed anywhere between 50 to 100 million people across the globe.
Centred around a military hospital in Etaples, France which was treating tens of thousands of wounded soldiers, the outbreak spread with ferocity. Its symptoms were horrific: haemorrhaging form the mouth, nose, eyes and ears, bleeding through the skin, cyanosis (turning black). Death from pneumonia, haemorrhages and suffocation from mucus congestion in the lungs was widespread; the case-to-fatality ratio was between 10 and 20 per cent.
In Australia, the outbreak began in early 1919, in the face of Federal efforts to quarantine incoming soldiers and any other persons likely to have come into contact with the virus. Affected victims began to die in quarantine stations, and the appalling conditions in these stations led to breakouts and mutinies. Soldiers were court-martialed for leaving the confines, but in fact the spread of the flu was inevitable, despite the states closing their borders (unconstitutionally, as it turns out).
In fact, as so often happens, an interstate brawl broke out over the spread of the disease, with states including Victoria resisting notifications and declaring influenza present. All the states fought the Commonwealth Government's attempt to impose federal control over restricting travel and interning the affected: the result was pandemic, and almost half of Australia's population was infected.
In the face of potential catastrophe, it was the country's local governments and hospitals which took decisive action in addressing inoculations and quarantining the sick. In Ballarat, the first case of Spanish Flu was diagnosed on January 24, 1919. A traveller heading home to South Australia from Melbourne fell ill in the town of then 40,000 people. Nine other cases soon followed, four of them critical.
In 1919 Ballarat was still divided into the City of Ballarat, the town of East Ballarat and various boroughs and shires. Nevertheless there was combined action to resist infection. Theatres and movie-houses were closed; schools didn't open after the summer holidays.
Churches banned communal singing and introduced mandatory gauze masks; some closed. Her Majesty's Theatre was fumigated daily. Council workers were sent to seal channels with bitumen in the hope it might prevent the spread of disease.
While Ballarat Base Hospital had always treated infectious disease (typhoid was rife during the early days of the city), an argument arose over whether the hospital or council should build an isolation ward. Eventually it was agreed an isolation camp should be constructed at the Showgrounds, then next to Lake Wendouree, where North Gardens are today.
The accommodation was not luxurious. A mortuary was housed under the new grandstand of the Showgrounds; the kitchen under the old. Patients were housed in the YMCA shed, which had an earth floor; wattle bark slabs were laid over this. Convalescents were sent to the luncheon rooms. It was stifling in the February heat of summer, until a cool change also brought 85mm or three-and-a-half inches of rain, forcing female patients to the sheep sheds and turning the ground to slush.
The Courier argued on behalf of residents this arrangement was not satisfactory, and the hospital admitted it had wards unused which might be pressed into service for flu isolation. However on the verge of these wards being opened, council backtracked and instead provided more tent marquees for use at the showgrounds - but denied access to any patients from neighbouring shires.
Outrage ensued, and the hospital then agreed to take those patients into its Alfred Wing. The shires paid the costs for treatment, and set up 'inhalatoria' - spaces where the public could inhale formalin fumes, despite there being medical advice this was dangerous (another 'preventative' measure was a mask soaked in eucalyptus oil and creosote).
By February 1919 two women and five men were dead of the flu in Ballarat. All five men had worked at Farmer's Bacon Factory in Eureka Street, leading to rumours the illness was swine-related (another modern connection). In fact working in the freezing conditions of the chill rooms had undermined the men's constitutions.
As the first wave of Spanish Flu eased in March, a second wave began in April. The Pleasant Street Primary School was pressed into service as an isolation ward, and arguments over the need for a new hospital wing arose once more, conflated with the costs of treatment and whether they should be borne by patients, the city of the state. The cost of treatment for April was around £3000 - around $240,000 in today's value, but a representing a much higher cost relative for the time.
At the end of 1919, it was reckoned 91 people had died of the Spanish Flu in Ballarat, and overall 12,000 -15,000 had died in Australia of the pandemic. While a death rate of 2.7 people per 1000 was the lowest rate in the world, some Indigenous communities had a mortality rate of 50 per cent.