1919: Masked medical staff and an emergency motorcycle crew outside a Sydney Emergency Centre, during the influenza epidemic in 1919. Australia's First Century. Supplied pic Historical NSW / Medical / Nurse / Doctor / Flu / Pandemic
1919: Masked medical staff and an emergency motorcycle crew outside a Sydney Emergency Centre, during the influenza epidemic in 1919. Australia's First Century. Supplied pic Historical NSW / Medical / Nurse / Doctor / Flu / Pandemic

How Spanish flu impacted the Northern Rivers 100 years ago

IN 2018-19, Dr Peter Hobbins led a Royal Australian Historical Society project to encourage people to research how the Spanish flu affected their community.

Entitled An Intimate Pandemic: The Community Impact of Influenza in 1919, the timing of the publication from the project proved to be uncanny.

Dr Hobbins said finding information on the subject often entailed looking in the most unexpected places.

"What you find is one town clerk writing to the other town clerk in towns nearby to ask how many blankets they have got, or if they could spare a nurse as all the other nurses were sick, or what they thought about regulations imposed by the State Government and if they were too strong," he said.

Tracking down these details in the archives of local councils and libraries shows the value of undertaking historical research within our communities, Dr Hobbins said.

Dr Hobbins was able to track down information on the Northern Rivers through an unpublished source.

A 60-page thesis contained in the rare books collection at the University of Sydney provided a rich insight into the situation in indigenous communities in the Northern Rivers at that time.

"One thing that I found was a thesis at the University of Sydney from a GP in the Lismore area called Roy Graham. He had written his thesis about the impact of the flu in his community," Dr Robbins said.

Dr Hobbins said it detailed how the death rate in the indigenous community was at 11 per cent.

This was 20 times the death rate of non-indigenous community members.

It documents the events surrounding the community at Stony Creek, near Kyogle, and also showed they inadvertently spread the disease.

In fleeing from sickness and death in their community, some Aboriginal people travelled up to 100km, reaching Coraki to the south and Fingal to the north.

Unfortunately, some of them also took the flu with them.

Dr Hobbins said one of the most fascinating stories he found from the 1919 outbreak in Australia showed a sister and brother whose names were on the same tombstone in Marlee General Cemetery, near Port Macquarie.

The brother, Raymond Robinson, died in a military hospital in England in November 1918 during the first and most deadly wave of the flu.

Back in Australia, his sister Marion had left nursing to marry.

However, she was called back to be an emergency nurse in 1919, only to then fatally catch the disease herself.

Their deaths from the same disease, half a world away, showed the intimate impact of the pneumonic influenza pandemic.



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