Epidemics have been a fact of human life at least since the invention of agriculture, when people first started to live in large stationary groups and in close quarters with animals, enabling new diseases to develop and spread.
It seems likely that Aboriginal people in Australia experienced far less of this devastating kind of disease, because of their small groups, their mobility, and their island home, but it soon became obvious that they had less resistance to European diseases than the Europeans who brought the germs to Sydney.
From the first European settlement, epidemics became part of Sydney life, as they were part of town and city life elsewhere in the world.
Garry Wotherspoon’s essay on Epidemics sets out some of the continuities in the ways each epidemic was viewed and tackled by Sydney’s people and governing bodies, and also the changes in attitude that led to new approaches. It was not until after World War II that the invention of new drugs and vaccines lessened the danger of many epidemic diseases, although new ones continue to emerge.
Sydney’s first epidemic more than decimated Aboriginal population in 1789. Survivors, such as Nanbarry, Colebee and others, had to make their way in a world completely changed by the loss of so many of its people and stories. Arabanoo, who later died of the disease, was taken to look for his friends in May 1789, and was horrified by the number of bodies found on the harbour shores. The disease itself, at this distance of time, is not known for sure, although it is believed to have been smallpox, and it left similar scars. Certainly, it did not seem to affect the colonists nearly as acutely as the Aboriginal people. Bennelong told Arthur Phillip that it had killed half of the Aboriginal people, but no Europeans died.
Smallpox was to visit Sydney again several times, causing panic in 1881-2, when it whipped up anti-Chinese feeling and led to draconian measures against those infected and their families and contacts. The epidemic and the mistakes made in trying to contain it, led to the establishment of the Coast Hospital, later Prince Henry, on a then isolated headland south of the city, as a specialised hospital for infectious diseases.
An outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 did not kill very many people, but had a huge effect on the city itself, as it led to a frenzy of cleaning, painting, and eventually demolition of ‘slum’ housing in the old port areas of Millers Point and The Rocks. Much of the photographic record of these areas was taken as a result of the plague, and the epidemic led to new interest in town planning, and increased government control over development.
Scarlet fever, measles and influenza also caused epidemics of varying severity, with the Spanish Flu of 1919 adding its misery to the aftermath of World War I all around the globe. Public places, schools, cinemas, dance halls and the university closed, and makeshift hospitals sprang up around the city, including at the Showground, and the Deaf and Dumb Institute . In New South Wales more than 6,000 people died of the flu, and it’s been estimated that more than 40% of Sydney’s population were sufferers at some time during 1919. Most devastatingly for the city, more than half of the deaths were people aged between 20 and 39, in the prime of their lives and many leaving children behind them. The NSW Public Health Bulletin published a fascinating article about the epidemic by Peter Curson and Kevin McCracken in 2006.
Other diseases such as TB and polio remained endemic throughout the first half of the twentieth century, until they were eventually defeated by vaccination and other public health measures. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when HIV/AIDS emerged, as a new disease, that the fear and prejudice so often inspired by epidemic disease re-emerged in Sydney, including in the media. This time, though, the response of the targeted community was quite different, and it can be argued that the emergence of Sydney’s vital gay and lesbian culture, epitomised by the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, was certainly influenced by these events.
Epidemic disease helped shape Sydney’s built environment, hospitals and public health system, and the attitudes of Sydney’s citizens over time. As the flu season draws near, let’s hope that these frightening epidemics are firmly in the past. Remember, if you feel sick, stay home!