Times past when a town was gripped by typhoid

EARLY WORKS: Following an outbreak of typhoid in Lismore in 1892 and the plague in 1905, contractors were hired and began installing the town’s first sewerage works. By 1907, 250 houses were connected to the sewerage system which drained to a septic tank system in Dawson St near the present day caravan park.
EARLY WORKS: Following an outbreak of typhoid in Lismore in 1892 and the plague in 1905, contractors were hired and began installing the town’s first sewerage works. By 1907, 250 houses were connected to the sewerage system which drained to a septic tank system in Dawson St near the present day caravan park.

NO ONE alive today could give testament to the epidemic that broke out in Lismore more than a century ago.

In 1892 a typhoid epidemic infected 47 residents and killed five. Almost half of the patients were under 15 years old.

It was during a time of rapid commercial expansion and population growth. In the 30 years to Federation, Lismore's population grew from a mere 93 people in 1871 to whopping 4542 by 1901.

Excrement lined the river banks that supplied drinking water to the town and raw sewage spilled into the streets from defective drains.

Of the 520 houses in the town, 170 were supplied by river water. Cesspits had been abolished five years ago and replaced with nightsoil contractors.

Life was more brutal in those days, and death was less discreet.

So when a railroad worker died of an unidentified illness in November 1891, little credence was given.

Dr Rees, one of the town's five doctors, examined the patient who had continued at work for several days while ill before developing severe symptoms. He died two days later.

The next suspected typhoid case occurred on November 25, when a man who worked in town fell ill at Dean's Hotel in South Lismore. The third case was another railway worker on December 7 and the fourth was a local staying at Dean's Hotel.

On January 6, 1892, an epidemic was declared.

The state's chief medical inspector, Dr Ashburn Thompson, was called in to investigate the outbreak.

In his report published in The Northern Star on March 23, 1892, Dr Thompson said he found the town's cleanliness "unsatisfactory" but not more so than was typical in similar towns.

"There were collections of garbage on several premises," he wrote.

"In three cases the gutters were extremely foul, slop-waters issuing in quantity from Gollan's hotel and Deane's hotel, and from several premises into Brown's lane on the river bank north of the bridge.

"The night-soil service has until lately been very ill done, but is now better or well done."

About 500 railway workers camped on the banks of the Lismore River, using it to drink and bathe. Without latrines, the workers defecated on the river banks, leading to widespread diarrhoea.

Dr Thompson ruled out river water as the cause of the outbreak because homes

using rainwater and boiled

water had similar infection rates. Typhoid-carrying milk was also ruled out, because few who drank it got sick.

The source was identified as an excreta dumping ground on the north side of town.

"If now persons suffering from typhoid should have deposited infectious excreta on that area… these would dry in the heat, would break up into small fragments, and would be carried up on the air to pollute food materials and be swallowed, or to pollute that air itself and be inhaled, mainly or entirely by those living in the immediate neighbourhood," Dr Thompson wrote.

"The railway camps at Lismore and along the line were allowed to be established without any regulation whatsoever, and here, as in so many other places, the easily avoidable result has been seen in yet another preventable and entirely unnecessary outbreak of typhoid fever."

Topics:  history

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