Saturday, February 23, 2013

Special Collections Fossickings 17: Dancing with death: the plague epidemic of 1900

Have you ever had Ross River fever? Do you worry about dengue? Living in the tropics can be a hazardous business. Back in 1900 a more sinister disease was about to arrive in the north …. bubonic plague. Contrary to popular opinion, plague is not a disease of the distant past and the 1900 outbreak, though serious, was not to be the last. Ian Townsend’s 2005 novel, “Affection” – held in the North Queensland collection – presents a colourful account of the Townsville outbreak and the mood of its citizens over a century ago.

Photo of plaque in The Rocks, Sydney -  “The plague made landfall in Sydney in January 1900”.  Photographer: Liz Downes

A blue plaque on a Sydney wall denotes the site of the first case of plague in January 1900. Eradication attempts reduced hundreds of houses in The Rocks to rubble, but inevitably the infection spread up the coast on ships carrying flea-infested rats. In April, when the vessel “Cintra” arrived in Townsville with a suspected plague victim among its crew, all on board were quarantined on Magnetic Island’s West Point.
Townsville Harbour 1905, NQ Photographic Collection ID 8, Coates Album -
“The plague was spread from port to port by ships carrying flea-infested rats”

While Townsville’s medical officer Dr Humphrys confirmed the diagnosis in the unfortunate crew member, the quarantine station’s doctor maintained it was typhoid. And although Brisbane specialist, Alfred Jefferis Turner, supported Dr Humphrys, dispute and disagreement persisted. For political, economic and personal reasons many refused to accept the presence of plague, often fearing the isolation from family which quarantine required. While only 37 cases of plague were officially recorded, the real numbers may have reached 300, as many went unreported. The unsuitability of West Point’s quarantine facility soon became evident and tents for plague victims were erected at Three Mile Creek. It was not until 1916 that the Cape Pallarenda station was built.

Sporadic plague outbreaks recurred in the north until 1909, but the next (and last) major outbreak was not until 1921, when three fatalities occurred in Townsville. Ian Townsend’s novel owes much to Christina Amiet’s 1995 Honours thesis “The second angel: plague in North Queensland 1900-1922” which is held in the thesis collection.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Fossicker - you rock! Can we get online access to this thesis? What other outbreaks required the use of the quarantine station at Pallarenda?