Friday, May 3, 2013

Special Collections Fossickings 21: What price sea views? History of the Cairns Base Hospital.

When a friend was transferred to Townsville from the Cairns hospital, she was grateful for the treatment but sorely missed her Trinity Bay views – Mount Stuart just didn’t cut it! For, compared with Townsville Hospital’s nomadic history, the Cairns hospital has led a far more sedentary life, unable or unwilling to tear itself away from its seafront setting.

The hospital’s modest beginnings in 1878, two years after settlement, were not unlike those in Townsville 12 years earlier - just a few small rooms on the Esplanade between Shield and Aplin Streets. Nonetheless, Cairns citizens must have been glad to have had any kind of hospital for, until then, the nearest was a sea-voyage away at Port Douglas.

Within six years this humble building was replaced by something larger constructed a few blocks further north, on the site which was to become the hospital’s permanent home. While the appealing views of the foreshore and waters of Trinity Bay were doubtless considered to be aesthetically stimulating, the hospital’s proximity to mangrove and paperbark swamps was far from health-giving.  Perhaps this gave impetus to the research of medical officer Edward Koch into the causes and treatment of tropical fevers. His name lives on in the Edward Koch Foundation, closely associated with JCU’s Cairns campus. Koch rightly made the connection between the fevers and the mosquitoes of the surrounding swamps, even developing an effective quinine-based medicine. Grateful citizens erected a memorial to him on the corner of Abbott and Spence Streets, in 1903, moving it to Anzac Memorial Park in the 1970s. Unlike Koch’s memorial, the hospital stayed put.

Cairns District Hospital in the 1930s, NQ Photographic Collection ID 1609, Wilson Album
Elevated on stumps, the second hospital building was constructed of timber in the Queensland bungalow style with wide verandahs, although some serious shortcomings meant that its office often doubled as an operating theatre. By 1912 a grander building, which became known as the Cairns District Hospital, was opened on the same site and, with various additions and extensions, survived for another 50 years. Today the Cairns Base Hospital is a large modern facility still on the site selected nearly 130 years ago. Although the mangrove swamps, or what remains of them, would be of little concern today, the location still exposes the hospital to the possibility of cyclonic storm surge or tsunami and remains controversial. Evacuation was considered, but avoided, as Cyclone Larry threatened in 2006 and went into force 5 years later with the approach of Yasi.

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