New insights into the Gippsland experience of the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic

Hospital staff and volunteers during the influenza pandemic at the temporary hospital set up at Korumburra State School, 1919. Standing: Miss Cunningham. Nurse Sampson, Miss Dora Grant, and Doris Shapland. Sitting: Miss Barrett, Nurse Cox, Nurse Boland, Miss Myra Grant. Courtesy of the Korumburra Historical Society

By Professor Erik Eklund

The influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was the most significant global public health crisis in the 20th century. A deadly new strain of the influenza virus emerged in early 1918, most likely via an Army Barracks in Kansas, and spread rapidly through weakened and highly mobile military and civilian populations. It is estimated that 50 million people died from the disease which affected every continent and every country and came straight after four years of the tragedy and trauma associated with the 1914-1918 war.

While we have several major global and national histories of the pandemic, the detailed regional experience is less well studied. This kind of history gives us an up-close community-based experience of this global crisis, revealing the networks of support, as well as the community and voluntary efforts, which underpinned the response.

The Gippsland region in south-east Australia suffered its first influenza case in late January 1919, shortly after the virus was circulating beyond Australian quarantine stations. Gippsland experienced roughly three waves of infection in March/April 1919, another in April/May and a final wave in June/July. This was very similar to the state-wide pattern in Victoria but there were regional and local differences.

What was at the time called ‘pneumonic influenza’ or ‘Spanish influenza’ moved through Gippsland in distinct ways largely because of the region’s unique settlement patterns and transport networks. Smaller satellite towns in the region were less likely to be hit as early as January, and also less likely to suffer constant re-infection. But a location on the main road through the region and/or the main Gippsland train line meant a higher risk profile. Therefore, towns from Warragul, Morwell, Traralgon, Sale, and Bairnsdale were especially affected. In the south, Wonthaggi and Korumburra appeared most affected; both are slightly closer to Melbourne and on the now-closed South Gippsland rail line. There is very little evidence of maritime transmission through the ports of the region.

The basic tools of good public health were already in place by 1919 and Australia managed a system of maritime quarantine which kept the virus out of the general population until early 1919. Once it was circulating in the community typical public health responses included; isolating cases, closing schools, encouraging or requiring mask wearing, and stopping large meetings.

All of these policies in regional areas were overseen by local councils, local doctors and nurses, and organisations like the Red Cross, which had large and active branches in just about every town in Gippsland. The voluntary labour of women was absolutely crucial to the successful response. The relatively new Commonwealth Serum Laboratories had developed a vaccine, which was distributed to local councils. Country doctors and nurses played an important role in its administration. The science behind the vaccine assumed that the disease was bacterial rather than viral, but later studies suggest that it did assist in relieving symptoms and reducing concurrent infections.

It is clear that without organisations like the Red Cross the region would have struggled to respond. They had wartime experience of working with authorities and the community, and they quickly turned that capacity towards working to manage the influenza outbreak. With the help of the Red Cross, and other local organisations and volunteers, ‘influenza wards’ were established in the region’s hospitals such as Yarram and Sale. Smaller towns setup ‘temporary hospitals’, often in state schools, such as at Korumburra and at Traralgon, which had been closed to reduce the risk of transmission.

I started this research in 2019 in time for a series of public lectures to mark the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic but my work continued as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020. It was inevitable that the question of how the two pandemics were different would come up.

These were different viruses and different times so comparisons need to be made carefully. But what you can see is that any community relies on its capacity to act together to deal with pandemics.

In 1919 Gippsland had existing organisations and networks which had mobilised during the 1914-1918 war. These same resources were quickly put in place to deal with the emerging influenza threat. There were debates and disputes over the location of temporary hospitals for example, where residents feared bringing the affliction closer to their homes and businesses, but there was also a remarkable unity of purpose.

We have seen throughout the world that the pandemic has been much worse where there has been a focus on individual rights and freedoms and a reduced capacity for community and state mobilisation. In 1919 Gippsland relied on existing networks and connections and a sense of getting through hardships together.  That same collective response was apparent in Victoria’s response to the COVID19 pandemic.

The other challenge related to the available records. There are few regional hospital records and no records of case numbers in each of the small to medium-sized towns in Gippsland. Furthermore, some cases were cared for at home by relatives or local volunteers. I had to rely on newspaper reports. Fortunately, there were over 30 regional newspapers published in 1919, but I was also able to access material from family and local historians.

While the 1919 pandemic is poorly remembered in commemoration and public history, it is well known amongst family historians who have seen its impact on their forebears. The newspapers included editorials, detailed reports from local correspondents, and letters to the editors. Without this rich source, it would have been impossible to piece together the myriad of stories which made up Gippsland’s 1919 pandemic experience.

By September 1919 the pandemic had run its course and few cases were reported after that month. Many looked forward to the New Year and fervently wished that life could get back to normal. But there was always a fear that the virus could return or mutate.

While the following years were free of major outbreaks they were not free of fear and anxiety, which is again another parallel with the present-day crisis as we face the post-COVID future with the same wish to return to normal but knowing that things will never be quite the same.

‘The Dreaded Pneumonic Influenza Has Made Its Appearance Amongst Us’: The Influenza Pandemic of 1918–19 in Gippsland, Victoria was published in Australian Historical Studies.

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