We’ve been here before

Gippsland Hospital, Sale, circa 1920. Photo: State Library of Victoria

A CENTURY ago, the post-war world faced a similar pandemic to today’s coronavirus.
The 1918 pneumonic influenza pandemic spread from February 1918 to April 1920, with Australia seeing peaks throughout 1919.
The first wave was relatively mild but a second, highly contagious wave of influenza led to many deaths.
At the time, there were no effective drugs or vaccines; increased travel and the crowded conditions on troop ships helped spread the disease and even the medical advice of the time reportedly ‘overdosed’ many patients with toxic doses of aspirin.
City residents were flocking to the country; masks were common on the trains and in larger stores (and compulsory in Sydney).
Schools were closed and some used as hospitals and 15 mile radius around infected areas invoked special restrictions.
The majority of deaths were from ‘bacterial pneumonia’, a common secondary infection associated with influenza, and there were more younger ‘healthy’ victims than normally expected.
Dubbed the Spanish flu, it was first identified in the United States of America, but wartime censorship was in place to ‘maintain morale’ and the early reports came from Spain, a neutral country with a free media that covered the outbreak from the beginning.
It infected 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves.
The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 17 million and 50 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
John Willett, a popular postal assistant at Stratford, who fought in World War 1, died in England on December 27 from pneumonic influenza.
“He was only a little over 21 years of age, and had seen a good deal of fighting,” it was reported.
In January, it was reported that Nurse Cone, of Glengarry, who had been on active service, ‘has been attacked by Spanish influenza in Western Australia’ and Private Jack Francis of Glengarry had died from the flu.
Francis had been reported killed, then missed and discovered as a prisoner of war at the end of the war.
He contracted the flu in London, but it was one battle too many.
A local medic, Dr William Reid, 41, died on January 31, now described as ‘an early victim of the influenza epidemic.’
At the time the Borough of Sale health officer, Dr A. Macdonald, claimed the visiting Melbourne specialist had stated “that it was not a case of pneumonic influenza”.
However, he recommended quarantine for all residences where there was a chest case.
With one of the first suspicious cases identified in Sale in late January, Dr Hagenauer explained that “… the first symptoms are those of ordinary influenza — pains in the back, headache, sore throat, etc, but principally pains in the back, and a general feeling of depression.”
Noting that the danger in the country was not so great as in the city, he still recommended inoculation and other precautions.
By February 3, with new regulations in place, the borough was forced to hold a special meeting to declare “an area of 15 miles radius from the council chambers, Sale” an infected area, because two cases of influenza had been reported in the borough.
This required the ministers of various religious denominations in the town to be notified that if more than 20 people attended worship, approved masks must be worn.
Proprietors of the various halls in the town were notified more than 20 people assembling within their halls was forbidden.
The various amusement halls in the town were closed until a notice permitting their opening was published in the government gazette.
Any person attempting to leave the town for other than business reasons, could be detained if such person’s conduct was challenged as a breach of the regulations.
A planned social for returned soldiers was deferred until the influenza quarantine regulations had been relaxed.
In late January the national media had suggested the pandemic was ‘abating’, but Australia was about to experience the more aggressive second wave.
The number of cases and deaths were updated regularly. Although numbers were much smaller than today’s figures, reflecting smaller populations, the percentage resulting in deaths was greater.
By May 1919, the Gippsland Times reported 12 influenza patients were in the Gippsland Hospital.
“All are improving, with the exception of Mr Boyle, of Sale, aged 65, who is very sick. One of the staff — Nurse Gibbs who was nursing in the Infections Ward — is down with a light attack.
“Nurse Jessep, who was admitted last week, was discharged on Saturday.”
Thomas Francis Boyle, 54, died the same month.
‘Jim’ Wilson, 36, of Stradbroke died in July and in September Private Walter John Cloak, youngest son of Mrs. R. E. Cloak, of Desailly St, who had returned from service in delicate health after contracting pneumonic influenza died.
— First published in the Sale and District Family History Group newsletter in 2020.