1919 Pneumonic Influenza Epidemic

Excerpt from the Healing Saint by Lindsay Ritchie

One precaution laid down by health authorities was the wearing of masks, even in public, and the hospital was placed under strict quarantine. Records show that nursing staff were the hardest hit of hospital personnel. More than half of the nursing staff succumbed to the virus at some stage of that year and had to be nursed themselves by their colleagues when they came off duty. Of six fourth-year nurses only two went on to graduate. The others died in the very institution that they had hoped would be the Alma Mater of their professional careers.

One of the surviving fourth-year nurses who went on to graduate was Nurse Clare Brearey (nee Wilkie), of Carrol Street, Kogarah, who passed on to her daughters a vivid description of the torrid conditions at the hospital that year:

My mother, together with her girlfriend (another nurse), volunteered to nurse those sick with the flu. Both contracted the disease and her nursing friend died.  Fortunately, my mother pulled through although most of her hair fell out for a while. As they were under strict quarantine, a box for each patient and staff member was nailed on the hospital fence and my grandfather would come each day and leave food and fruit, plus any notes on what was happening in the family circle. 

The influenza epidemic played havoc with the hospital’s finances that year and the Health Department paid out the miserly sum of £970 towards defraying some of the cost. The nurses and attendants did receive a small gratuity when district organisations raised £120 to be shared among them, but little else to compensate for the long hours demanded during the crisis.

For the visiting medical staff, the period was one of chaos as hospital rosters were non-existent, due to the uncertainty of the availability of any doctor, but all shared the awesome responsibility of who they could save and those beyond saving.