As we stare down the barrel of an unknown pandemic, we remember that the city has seen quite a few epidemics in its time. Prior to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919, an outbreak of smallpox took hold of the city and its imagination.
At 2.50am on 29 April 1881 when the steamship Brisbane floated into harbour from Hong Kong, its passengers included a smallpox victim. The sick passenger and several other men were transferred to the hospital ship Faraway for quarantine, while the rest of the crew and passengers stayed on board the Brisbane until given the all clear, but three weeks later the infant daughter of On Chong, a Chinese merchant from Lower George Street in the Rocks, was infected with the fever and rash. Newspapers became aware of the case and anxiety spread as quick as the disease.
Victims were identified in the Rocks and in Surry Hills, with doctors reporting the unmistakable signs of a fetid smell and pustules on the body.
Australia’s distance from Europe and Asia had largely shielded the country from the impact of this disease. Sydney’s quarantine policy of isolating ships at North Head had also been effective. However, as ships made the transition from sail to steam, travel times were halved, allowing diseases with a two- to three-week incubation time to suddenly enter the country much more quickly.
Sydney’s lack of preparedness exacerbated the epidemic. A lack of cowpox lymph needed for vaccination meant only one in five residents were immunised before the outbreak. Meanwhile the superintendent at the Quarantine Station withheld basic medical supplies from victims and their families despite Government instructions to the contrary.
One of the other unfortunate bi-products of the disease was the racist backlash against the Chinese community. The public spat on and abused Chinese residents in Sydney’s streets. The anti-immigration lobby were quick to use the case of On Chong’s daughter as evidence for the case for legislation restricting Chinese arrivals. The fact that smallpox was rife in England and Europe did not seem to lessen the irrational suspicion.
The upshot of the outbreak was the establishment of a hospital for infectious diseases at Little Bay (later Prince Henry Hospital); a Royal Commission into management of the quarantine station; and the establishment of a dedicated ambulance service, with personnel trained in infection control.
The fear of contagion has returned to our city but looking back over 100 years it’s a perhaps a strange comfort to remember that Sydney has seen events like this before and come through.
Read more in the Dictionary’s entry on the Smallpox Epidemic in 1881 by Raelene Allen here, and an article by Garry Wotherspoon on epidemics in Sydney here. Judith Godden has also contributed entries on the history of nursing in Sydney here and Sydney’s hospitals here.
Minna Muhlen-Schulte is a professional historian and Senior Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. She was the recipient of the Berry Family Fellowship at the State Library of Victoria and has worked on a range of history projects for community organisations, local and state government including the Third Quarantine Cemetery, Victorian War Heritage Inventory, Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka (M.A.D.E) and Mallee Aboriginal District Services. In 2014, Minna developed a program on the life and work of Clarice Beckett for ABC Radio National’s Hindsight Program and in 2017 produced Crossing Enemy Lines for ABC Radio National’s Earshot Program. You can hear her most recent production, Carving Up the Country, on ABC Radio National’s The History Listen here. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Minna!