I notice in every chemist shop I pass, at this time of the year, a sign encouraging me to get a flu shot; and I am reminded of the flu epidemic a century ago.
One of the activities I was involved in for the Kandos centenary in 2014 was a tour of the cemetery. I don’t know whether you have visited the Rylstone-Kandos monumental cemetery with columbarium wall, (yes, I am being a show-off but I like new words). It’s worth a visit, if only to see it in all its colourful splendour. In researching the cemetery, I came across the graves of three young men who died from influenza at that time, and I’ll come back to them later. What struck me more than the tragedy of their deaths, was the impact of influenza on the Kandos community and the nation.
Quite a while ago I read a book by Geraldine Brooks called Year of Wonders, set during the bubonic plague in 1666, when a small English village quarantined itself in order to prevent the disease from spreading further. It wasn’t the same in Kandos, where a group of people wanted to keep people out, in case influenza got in. Shopkeepers were asked to order goods by train; commercial travellers were asked not to visit; the cement company was asked not to employ outside labour; a committee of 15 watched trains to report on new arrivals and persuade locals from “travelling into plague-stricken areas” (read Sydney); and residents were asked not to entertain visitors. According to one newspaper account, Mrs D Crook who ran a boarding house, lost her boarders because she had made a trip to Sydney “for urgent business reasons”.
Some would say there were other, more reasonable precautions. On at least two occasions schools closed for up to a week. Some events were cancelled, for example a football match, the Catholic Bazaar, the Church of England building fund dances, a welcome home to soldiers and peace celebrations. Some people voted with their feet placed firmly on their home floor, and didn’t attend the cinema or euchre nights or community events, though I suspect they all attended Sunday church. The cement company arranged for inoculation of staff and the Angus Memorial Hall was to be utilised as a temporary hospital if necessary. A depot was established in Kandos to provide nursing assistance and food, clothes etc.
The government was not sitting on its hands. There were numerous pieces of legislation, passed in 1919 (and some soon withdrawn). They declared that both public and private places be quarantined where necessary, and be indicated by yellow flags. That individuals be fined £20 if they didn’t follow quarantine directions from a doctor. That flu masks be compulsory, at least in the city. These could be purchased for sixpence or made using layers of gauze on a light wire frame. That inhalation chambers, which travellers were required to pass through, be installed at particular railway stations. These had walls and roof made of calico, were large enough to hold 15 to 20 travellers at a time and were sprayed with a vapour of 2 percent sulphate of zinc. Vaccinations were available (though I don’t doubt they were relying on a good percentage of people not having them).
As with most public emergencies there were different points of view and various myths. Early on, vaccines were said to be rejuvenating, improving or even curing rheumatism, neuritis, sclerosis, chronic catarrh and neuralgia. One builder advertised that you caught pneumonic influenza through living in draughty rooms and he could provide well-fitting windows. Another advertisement assured readers Blooms Overproof Rum at seven shillings and nine pence a pint was a sure cure for influenza. Eucalyptus Oil was a cure-all.
There is no doubt that the influenza epidemic was a fearful world calamity. It is quite horrifying to consider that more people died, worldwide, from influenza in 1918-1919 (reliable estimates suggest at least 50 million) than died in World War 1 1914-1918. By the end of 1919 the pandemic abruptly vanished. It is said to have run its course, having infected those who were susceptible.
Perhaps isolation, better health, better climate, fewer people resulted in the pandemic having far less impact in Australia, at around 12,000 deaths, 6,287 in NSW, and seven at Kandos.
So, were all the precautions necessary or effective? In July 1919 Dr Martin Doyle MLC, who gave his credentials as LRCP London and MRCS England, wrote that the consensus of medical opinion in Europe was that prophylactic or preventative inoculation was considered too dangerous and that treatment of an influenza patient using vaccine was of doubtful benefit and certain risk. Evidence shows that inoculation did not always save a person from influenza or death.
The Lithgow Mercury editorial in August 1919 perhaps summed it up best :
“…Inoculation is not trusted…the wearing of masks has come under the ban of popular disapproval…inhalation chambers have proved harmful…closing business houses and places of amusement have been shown to be almost valueless…we are justified in hoping that distances as well as differences in climate and habits of living will save us from the more deadly form…”
There were people in Kandos devastated by seven deaths, three buried in Rylstone Kandos cemetery, who all died in July 1919: Joseph Fettell, 36, unmarried, on the 11th; Charles Fuller, 39, married to Martha neé Britton, father of six, cement worker, on the 23rd; and Ernest Honeysett, 38, married to Hannah neé Moss, father of a 17-yr-old son, on the 28th. The other four were George Casey, James Baker, Clarrice Corney and Charles Milton. Strangely, this flu attacked young, healthy, fit adults rather than the very young, old and infirm.
You have probably already guessed where I stand in all of this – what I have learnt from this bit of history.