Tuberculosis and other diseases in the settlement of early Beecroft  

Because of its altitude, a fact often included in advertising material for early subdivisions [1]. Beecroft was regarded as a safe clime for those who were unwell – a suburb that was higher than the miasma which was thought to bring disease to nineteenth century cities [2].

 In 1891 “A Correspondent” wrote:

 “Three or four years ago, Beecroft, was only a wilderness of bush, but it is now fast springing into an important suburb. The undulating country, the pretty valleys and the high hills form a pleasing contrast to the many flat an uninteresting suburban localities nearer Sydney, and which are already overcrowded. It is not to be wondered that people are driven away from such a state of things to such refuges in the hills as around Beecroft, where they can enjoy the beauties of the surrounding country and recreation in the pure atmosphere free from dust and smoke and other impurities.” [3] 

Even as late as 1939 Beecroft Grammar School was touting the virtues of the healthy climate in Beecroft:

“situated in a district that enjoys an ideal climate. Complete immunity of the school from epidemics for the past fifteen years is a tribute to its healthy position. Beecroft, fourteen miles from Sydney, is a picturesque district with climatic conditions that assist the healthy development of the growing boy.” [4]

Of the early families following the establishment of the township the biographies of several families all show that they were motivated to come to the district for the health of family members. These included the Holcombe, Nixon, Pierce, Seale and Vernon families. Young Clarice Green, whose birthday party is commemorated by a photograph on page 254 of the published history, died before her next birthday in 1897 of typhoid. The family of one of the district’s most famous sons, L J Hooker, moved to Beecroft when his mother Ellen (Nellie) Hookin came to live with relatives in Copeland Road East because she was a single mother and about to die (in 1911) of tuberculosis.

During the late 1870s in the colony of NSW, tuberculosis, then known as consumption, was a considerable health problem and was perhaps the single greatest cause of death in that period both within the colony and in Britain. [5] Tragically, young adults in the 20-30 age group were among the most vulnerable. In September 1877, the philanthropists John and Ann Goodlet began their work for consumptives in a leased property in Picton, NSW, and in September 1886 they expanded the charity with a new purpose-built facility at nearby Thirlmere.  These facilities were not hospitals, but a ‘Consumptive Home’ to which sufferers could go for care and shelter in a healthy country environment. They were more sanitaria than hospital except that, unlike their overseas equivalent, they were not for the wealthy who could pay often considerable sums, but for the poor who could not afford such amenities [6]. The Home at Picton was the only institution in the colony of NSW dedicated to those who suffered from this disease until St Joseph’s Hospital was opened in July 1886 in Parramatta [7]. These institutions remained the only ones specifically for the care of consumptives until April 1897 when Lady Hampden decided, as a way to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, to raise funds in order to build a Queen Victoria Home for Consumptives [8].

It was commonly and falsely believed that the healthy climate of the colonies would prevent, improve and even help cure the consumptive so many sufferers emigrated to Australia to what was considered a healthier climate. The treatment consisted of isolation, lots of fresh air, good food and mild exercise, all of which probably improved the general health and strength of a patient but were never a cure for the disease.

In 1870, Melbourne physician William Thomson produced what should have been regarded as compelling evidence that the cause, cure and progress of consumption had little to do with the climate and that the benefit of the colonial climate to sufferers was overstated [9]. His work was received with considerable hostility within the colonial medical establishment and was ignored as was his advice.

In March 1882, the German scientist Dr Robert Koch demonstrated that the cause of tuberculosis was the tubercule bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This led to high hopes for a cure for the disease. Later, in 1890, Koch claimed that ‘tuberculine’, a product of the tubercule grown in an artificial medium, had shown much promise in effecting such cures of consumption in its early stages [10]. The various Australian colonial governments sent envoys to Berlin to study these claims and the result of these studies was a cautious acceptance, with a significant number of caveats, that ‘the fluid is probably a valuable remedial agent’ [11]. It did not, however, produce the breakthrough cure for the disease and the promotion of the sanatorium movement, as the most significant means of treatment, continued. People sought to move to what were considered healthier suburbs and those infected were treated in sanatoria with fresh air and good nutrition.

Following the end of World War 1, an outbreak of tuberculosis, especially amongst the returned soldiers led to the re-establishment of the Red Cross in Beecroft [12].

[1] For example “Cheltenham: Select suburb: Healthiest spot on Strathfield-Hornsby Line”:                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 3 November 1919 p3

[2] P H Curson Times of Crisis (Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1985) p 6

[3] Cumberland Mercury 14 February 1891 p6.

[4] Farmer and Settler 7 December 1939 p14

[5] J.B. Trivett, Tuberculosis in NSW. A statistical analysis of the Mortality from Tubercular Disease during the last thirty three years (Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer, 1909).  For works on the Colonial incidence see Robin Walker, ‘The struggle against pulmonary tuberculosis in Australia, 1788-1950’ , Australian Historical Studies 20:80, 439-461, htttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10314618308682938 [accessed  March 15, 2011]; A.J. Proust (ed) History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (Canberra: Brolga Press, 1991); F.B. Smith, Illness in Colonial Australia (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011).

[6] Thomas Dormandy, The White Death, A History of Tuberculosis  (New York: New York University Press, 2000),  147-159  helpfully traces the nineteen century European movement of ‘rest and fresh air’ in the sanatoria movement and the English equivalent  is found in F.B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950 (London: Croom Helm, 1988), 97-135.

[7] A.J. Proust ‘Evolution of Treatment’ in A.J. Proust (ed) History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (Canberra: Brolga Press, 1991), 148-9.

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 1897.

[9] Thomson published the view in 1876, some 6 years before Koch expressed his germ theory, that consumption was spread by those whose 'breath ... expelled a specific disease causing micro-organism which could be inhaled'. FB Smith, Illness in Colonial Australia, 122-124.

[10] Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch 1843-1910, his life and contribution is summarised in Thomas M Daniel, Pioneers of Medicine and their Impact on Tuberculosis (New York: University of Rochester  Press, 2000), 62-97.

[11] Australasian Medical Gazette (Sydney, NSW), 15 March 1891.

[12] The Sun 23 July 1926 p 3

Previous article supplied by Rev Dr Paul Copper

 

Influenza Epidemic of 1919

 An epidemic of influenza attacked New South Wales primarily between March and September 1919. It appears to have been first found in 1918 amongst the troop recruitment areas in Kansas, United States of America, and then travelled to the troops in Europe and finally making its way of the returning troop ships to Australia. It is sometimes called the “Spanish Flu Epidemic” because an early high profile victim of the epidemic was the King of Spain. It was described as “the most serious outbreak of the disease yet experienced in New South Wales, judged by its infectiousness, as shown by the number of sufferers, by its virulence, as shown by its duration in epidemic form, or by its severity, as shown by the mortality.” [1]

 Within NSW, between January and September 6,244 people died. The highest rate of death was young men aged between 25 and 45 years of age, pregnant women and Aborigines.

 From October 1918 reports of the virulence of the epidemic were received from overseas and returning troop ships arriving after that date were placed in quarantine and this contained it for a period of time. In preparedness for the epidemic further invading management of the epidemic was given to an Influenza Administrative Committee which reported to State Cabinet. This Committee was chaired by the Under Secretary Local Government Department. The Red Cross worked in conjunction with this Committee to supply nursing services based at a number of depots. One of these depot was based in Beecroft at the School of Arts and the local school principal (Mr J I Forsayth) was in charge. This depot also provided vaccinations. The closest convalescent hospital to Beecroft was created for the duration at Denistone House, part of Ryde Hospital. Later studies showed that the prophylactic inoculation did reduce the rate of mortality.

 Based upon an apparent success within the British Army in Europe spray rooms were made available. This was a wooden chamber lined with ruberoid and into the chamber several jets were fixed. Each jet sprayed into the chamber a fine spray of water and a sulphate of zinc for inhalation. A person was in the chamber for ten minutes. The Parents & Citizens Association of Beecroft Public School paid for a chamber at the school for the 300 pupils. It contained two jets spraying continuously for 3 hours. [2] This approach was discontinued during the epidemic as it was not having any noticeable effect in reducing mortality and there were concerns of contagion arising to the confined spaces.    

 For every day activities libraries, schools, theatres, racecourses and hotels were closed. The billiard room in the Beecroft School of Arts was closed. [3] Church services, while initially closed, were permitted to occur outdoors provided the congregation was masked and the congregation maintained a distance from others present. The wearing of masks in trains, trams, public places, shops and offices frequented by the public was compulsory. There were travel restrictions – especially from or to places of infection. There was a power to remove people from their homes and place them in hospital. “Fifth year medical students of the University of Sydney were attached as medical officers to most of the relief depots and gave a very good account of themselves.” Children of parents who were inflected were temporarily placed in institutional care of the State Children’s Relief Department. [4]

 In May 1919 the nature of life in Beecroft was conveyed in this newspaper article:

 “The staff at the Beecroft Influenza relief depot are having an easy time. So far there have been no cases of ‘flu officially reported, though unofficially it is known there are some cases in the village. There are, however, few people in Beecroft who are likely to need relief or to ask for it, if they did require help.” [5]

 Local Beecroft depot was staffed by the local medical practitioners, Mr Boucher the chemist, nurses and volunteers. [6]

 By June 1919, Beecroft reported over 200 cases of the flu. Dr Davis, one of the local medical practitioners also contracted it. Archibald Frederik Cunningham of Mary Street (with his youngest child only six months old) died in that same month [7].

 When the State Government subsequently provided compensation for businesses that had to shut during the epidemic, Beecroft College was one that successfully claimed over fifteen pounds for lost income in 1919.

  [1]        H A Smith “Mortality Statistics” in Department of Health,  Report on the Influenza Epidemic in New South Wales in 1919 (Department of Health, Sydney, 1919) p173 

 [2]        Sun, 28 March 1919 p5; Daily Telegraph 28 March 1919 p6

 [3]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, p8

 [4]        W G Armstrong “Epidemiology and Administration” in Department of Health,  Report on the Influenza Epidemic in New South Wales in 1919 (Department of Health, Sydney, 1919) pp 144, 157, 159 160 and 164.

 [5]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 3 May 1919 p8 

 [6]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate 30 August 1919 p8

 [7]        Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 21 June 1919 p 8. Mr Cunningham had been a local butcher: Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 16 July 1910 p 8

 

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