Thursday 11 August 2011

Black Death in Maryborough 1905

Pneumonic Plague
An outbreak of pneumonic plague occurred in Maryborough in 1905.  Maryborough at that time was Queensland’s largest port – a thriving hub for wool, meat, timber and other rural products. 
Had it not have been the dedication of the two nurses who willingly sacrificed their own lives the outbreak could have had catastrophic consequences.  Only eight people were to die, yet had the disease spread it could have caused an epidemic of massive proportions which may have killed tens of thousands across Australia.  Those eight people included five neglected children all from one family, a neighbour who assisted the family by laying out the corpse of the first victim, and two nurses. 
To understand the dangers involved in the 1905 outbreak, it is necessary to give a brief definition of the word plague:
Plague is a serious, potentially life-threatening infectious disease that is usually transmitted to humans by the bites of rodent fleas. It was one of the scourges of early human history. Bubonic plague is the most common form of plague and is characterized by large lumps in the groin and/or neck area.  Pneumonic plague is not spread by fleas but moves from host to host on particles of expectoration.  A sneeze from an infected person would almost certainly be a death sentence for anyone in close proximity.  (Edwards, 2003).
On a daily basis, the warning signs were becoming more menacing.  In Maryborough, moves were rapidly being made to prepare for a possible plague outbreak.  The council purchased the site of the once thriving Dundathu sawmill village – for £450 – and began converting the buildings into a plague hospital and quarantine station. 
The dates following is a timeline of events as they unfolded.
3 June, 1904   The first ominous signs that plague may have reached Maryborough, when a man was taken by the Ambulance Transport Brigade to the Maryborough hospital.  The patient was suffering from an illness, which according to an early diagnosis, may have been the plague. 
8 June, 1904   Official acknowledgement that the case was indeed plague.  The Maryborough Chronicle reported:
… first case of plague that has occurred in Maryborough since the disease first made its appearance in Australia some four or five years ago, and there is reason to believe that the man brought the disease with him from Bundaberg, whence he arrived in Maryborough last Thursday week.  On the death of the Chinaman the cause was certified to be phlebitis and adenitis, but the Government Medical Officer, Dr Penny, having a strong suspicion that the primary cause was plague, acted on that assumption and took the utmost precautions. 
The safety measures ordered by Dr Penny included the fumigation of the house in which the man had been ill, the disinfecting of his clothes, and the fumigation of the isolation ward at the hospital where he had died. 
23 June, 1904 John Rillie, a baker in
Adelaide Street, was taken ill with plague symptoms and Dr Penny immediately placed him in the hospitals isolation ward.  The bakery was isolated, Rillie’s fellow workers placed in quarantine, and police were stationed at the front and back of the building to ensure that they remained in the building.  John Rillie recovered from the plague and Maryborough was to be free of the disease for almost a year. 
Meanwhile, the Maryborough Chronicle called for calm - ‘Although the outbreak of plague, if two cases may be regarded as such, is deplorable, we hope that calm vigilance will take the place of the alarm, and we have no doubt that if all ordinary precautions are taken, the town will soon be clean again.’
May, 1905 The plague returned in its most terrible and deadly form – the pneumonic plague. 
24 May, 1905   Dr John Crawford Robertson tended to John O’Connell who had been ill for five days, but as the family had no money for a doctor’s visit had delayed for a long as possible summoning the doctor.   At the time dengue fever was in epidemic proportions in the city and as the symptoms of pneumonic plague and dengue fever are similar, Dr Robertson incorrectly diagnosed dengue fever as being the cause of John’s illness.
On the corner of Sussex and Pallas Streets, a tiny cottage owned by John Bartholomew was rented to Richard O’Connell and his family.  Richard O’Connell had a reputation of being a drunkard and when his wife died eighteen months before, he was often considered an absent father.  John O’Connell was the eldest son and worked as a clerk in a warehouse near the river.  The other children included Kate, James, Ritchie, May, Ellen and Mary (also reported as Johanna). 
The family lived in appalling conditions and with no presence of a parent, and no money for food, the children relied on the generosity of neighbours, and scavenging for food from garbage tips.
As John’s illness worsened, Kate, the eldest sister, hurried for help to a neighbour’s house, the home of Mr Edward and Mrs Letetia Edwards.  Mrs Edwards came to the tiny cottage and did what she could to nurse the sick boy.  However, she soon realised that the young man was dying.  She comforted and soothed him, but by dawn he was dead.
28 May, 1905   Dr John Crawford was once again called to the small family home, as John’s siblings now had similar symptoms.  James and Ellen were very ill, and although Kate and May were not quite as sick, the four children were taken immediately to the Maryborough Hospital.  Ritchie and Mary were sent to the home of the mysterious Miss S., later identified as Miss Schafer.
Meanwhile, Mrs Edwards the neighbour who had assisted in laying out John’s corpse, also became ill with the same symptoms.
Two doctors and all the nurses and patients at the Maryborough hospital were now at risk and still no accurate diagnosis had been made.  The following day the two remaining children were taken from Miss Schafer and also placed in the hospital as they too had fallen ill.
One of the nurses who immediately volunteered to care for the children was Rose Adelaide Wiles, known affectionately as Nurse Adela.  Further nursing assistance to care for the other children was required and one of the nurses to be summoned by letter was Cecelia Elizabeth Bauer.
31 May, 1905   Ellen and James O’Connell die within hours of one another.  Mrs Edwards also passes away. 
2 June, 1905   The first post-mortem on the body of Ritchie O’Connell confirmed that tests would need to be conducted by the pathology laboratory in Brisbane, but the corpse now revealed all the indications of pneumonic plague.
3 June, 1905   Mrs Edwards’ home was fumigated, and her clothing and bedding burnt.  Mary O’Connell the sixth victim dies and was taken to the hospital morgue for a post mortem.  Although the results are indicative of the plague, no confirmation had been received from Brisbane.
At 3pm exactly the fire-brigade arrived at the home of the O’Connell cottage with instructions to burn it down.  A large crowd had gathered to watch the spectacle, and some reports said that half the population of the city had turned out to watch the event.
Nurse Cecelia Bauer, who had been almost constantly with the children from the onset of the plague, finally showed the first signs of illness.
5 June, 1905   Nurse Adelaide Wiles developed plague symptoms.  More specialised personnel were requested and another two experienced nurses arrived from the plague hospital at Colmslie. 
Until the Colmslie nurses arrived, the plague ward had still not been placed in complete isolation.  In the sick ward the two infected nurses would not allow the Colmslie nurses near them. 
6 June, 1905   Nurse Cecelia Bauer died at the age of twenty-two.  Long awaited confirmation that the sickness was the pneumonic plague arrives from the pathology laboratory in Brisbane – two full weeks after the first victim, John O’Connell dies. 
The Colmslie nurses soon put the sick room to order and all of the nurses, including the medical superintendent, the matron and the wardsman are injected with 20 cc’s of Yershin’s serum.
12 June, 1905 Nurse Adelaide Wiles passes away.
16 June, 1905 Nurse Sprague sufficiently recovers and is discharged and the other nurses were removed to Pialba where they could recover their strength. 
No further cases of plague were reported in the city or at the hospital, and after some consideration the hospital was taken out of quarantine. Located on the side of City Hall, is a memorial to the two Nurses Cecilia Bauer and Rose Wiles who courageously volunteered to nurse victims of the plague.
Bauer and Wiles Memorial Fountain located on the Lennox Street

Martin, Elizabeth A. (Ed.). (2003). Concise Medical Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Matthews, Tony. (1995). River of Dreams: a history of Maryborough and District. Maryborough (QLD): Maryborough City Council.


Anonymous said...

How brave those young nurses were.

Leah said...

Those poor children.
Left neglected like that.
They must have died in terror.

Anonymous said...

Should be a movie, what a story