Today on 2SER Breakfast, Lisa and Tess talked about the pneumonic influenza pandemic of 1919 (aka the Spanish flu) – a world-wide pandemic that hit Sydney 100 years ago in February 1919. More people died from the flu around the world than from WW1 – but it’s been largely forgotten.
A virulent influenza spread around the world at the end of the World War I. It was a deadly strain – a pneumonic influenza – very communicable, and causing deaths in the middle aged (rather than the usual young and elderly). As troops demobilised from Europe and Africa, the virus spread like wildfire – it became what medical people call a pandemic: an epidemic that spreads across national boundaries.
Imperial and global communications, via telegraph and newspapers, ensured that everyone knew the disease was on its way to Australia. It had been dubbed the ‘Spanish flu’ because the King of Spain actually died from it in 1918 and as Spain was neutral during the war, there was no censorship of the newspapers, and the impact of the disease started to make headlines.
The Department of Health in NSW was having meetings with local mayors, health and medical officers, from late 1918 to see what could be done. The influenza hit Sydney in February 1919 and was initially contained within the Quarantine Station up on North Head.
But it could only be contained for a couple of months, and was soon out in the general population. The state government tried to mandate the wearing of masks, schools were closed (and often became emergency hospitals), as were theatres, cinemas and halls. Even the pubs were closed for a while, and when they re-opened people could only stay for a drink for 5 minutes before they had to move on. There were inoculations at public depots – it is estimated that 444,683 people received the double dose jab. Depots were set up with medical officers to visit all suspected cases, diagnose and report.
The pnuemonic influenza raged in NSW from January to September 1919. Across the state, the worst months were February to July 1919, with numbers of deaths spiking in both April and June.
The influenza pandemic infected about a third of Australia’s population in 1919, and caused around 15,000 deaths – all in one year. This was on top of the the nation’s 62,300 war dead.
Historian Dr Peter Hobbins makes the point, ‘In fact, with ‘Spanish flu’ killing 15,000 Australians in less than a year, its morbid impact was approximately the same as the annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force over 1914–18.’
The impact in Sydney was massive. There were 9,817 cases reported in metropolitan Sydney, and 3,902 people died. In other words, nearly 40% of people who caught the flu in metro Sydney died. That’s a deadly flu.
The influenza pandemic affected every Sydney community. It was frightening, disruptive, and tragic. It took away breadwinners as well as the elderly and children. Pregnant women also had a high fatality rate. It’s hard to imagine how it must have felt being in Sydney at this time – war weary, with so many families in mourning for loved ones lost at war and then at home from the pandemic.
For too long, the pneumonic influenza pandemic has been a largely forgotten part of Sydney’s history. But no more. On the centenary of the pneumonic influenza pandemic, the stories of suffering and stoicism are being remembered.
To read in more depth about the influenza pandemic’s impact in New South Wales, head to the Royal Australian Historical Society’s website to view their resources: An Intimate Pandemic: The Community Impact of Influenza in 1919. The RAHS also has an ongoing project for people to research the impact of the Spanish flu in their community and to upload their stories to the website.
Dictionary author and friend Dr Peter Hobbins has been on tour around the state sharing the historical sources connected with this extraordinary moment in Australia’s history, and you can read his piece about it on The Conversation here. He’s also giving talks about the history and impact of the pandemic on Sydney, and has one coming up on 5 March with the Harbour Trust (details here).
You can read about this pandemic and other epidemics that hit Sydney in our article on Epidemics on the Dictionary here too.
Dr Lisa Murray is the Historian of the City of Sydney and the former chair of the Dictionary of Sydney Trust. She is a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of New South Wales and the author of several books, including Sydney Cemeteries: a field guide. She appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Lisa! You can follow her on Twitter here: @sydneyclio