Influenza Epidemic of 1919

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If the sufferings of wartime were not enough, in 1919 Australia followed in the wake of a world-wide influenza epidemic. In NSW alone, approximately 6000 people died because of influenza. Again, the Faculty of Medicine played an important role in fighting the deadly virus. During the epidemic, medical students were used to assist local doctors in treating the sick and dying in both hospitals and homes. Local hospitals were full to capacity and emergency hospitals were set up around the city in places like the Showground. Students were called upon to assist qualified doctors attend to those who presented with the flu. The risk of contracting the infection whilst carrying out this work was high and students were heavily masked whilst attending patients. The following excerpt from an oral history held in the University Archives gives a vivid accound of what those times were like for our students:

It was a dreadful time. Very short of doctors. Emergency hospitals everywhere - the Deaf and Dumb Institute, the Showground. I hadn't been in a hospital yet. I couldn't take a temperature but they showed you what to do. We went out on rounds to the people. I suppose we looked like doctors. The doctors were so busy. A lot still hadn't come back from the War so so they had to use us. I worked from a Depot in Flinders Street, Darlinghurst, a church there, then from Woolloomooloo, down the Stanley and Palmer Street brothels - I was only 19. You'd go into these houses and there'd be noone up and about and they had no food. Volunteers used to come with food but they couldn't keep up with it. I got the flu myself but not badly. I went home and to the local doctor. We were never vaccinated that I remember. (from interview with Dr Cawley Madden, 8 March, 1979. Held in University Archives)

NSW Public Health Department report that in 1919, almost 40 per cent of Sydney's total population had influenza. In some areas of Sydney, the deaths from influenza accounted for 50 per cent of all deaths.[1]

Emergency measures were carried out on campus, such as the wearing of face masks in classrooms and the University was closed for a period of six weeks from May 5th. To make up for this loss of study time, the June and September vacations were shortened and the end of year examinations held later than usual. Students and staff were forbidden to attend university if they had a temperature of more than 99 degrees F and were advised that after an attack of fever to wait until three successive days of regular temperature before return to work. All members of the University were recommended to submit to vaccination against influenza every three months. This was managed and controlled by the Department of Pathology within the Medical School.[1]