Bubonic Plague in Australia

Some people believe the plague ended in the seventeenth century, but this is not so. There have been many outbreaks around the world right up to the present time.

In mid-January 1900 bubonic plague made its first recorded appearance in Australia, being officially declared in Adelaide on the 15th of the month and in Sydney four days later. The Adelaide outbreak subsequently came to very little. In the case of Sydney, however, the disease, introduced by infected rats aboard overseas vessels berthed at Darling Harbour, quickly invaded the nearby dockside streets and within a few months had spread to encompass much of the city.

The death toll was nothing like European outbreaks. Yet it must be remember that although Australia is a large country, the population was small. Between February and August 1900 some 300 persons were struck down by the infection, of whom more than 100 died. Probably the toll was much higher due to misdiagnosis and the fact that many cases went unreported.

Like all plague outbreaks, the epidemic caused a degree of human tragedy and suffering out of all proportion to the numbers of cases and deaths actually involved. More than 1750 people were uprooted from their homes and forcibly quarantined at North Head. Many homes and outbuildings were demolished, fences knocked down, sanitary conveniences destroyed, chattels removed and people virtually turned out on to the streets. Whole districts of Sydney were cordoned off, quarantined and invaded by an army of “sanitary inspectors” and public cleansing teams.

Curfews were imposed upon infected zones of the city and people’s right of movement were severely restricted. Organised teams were engaged to collect and kill rates (and in some cases domestic dogs and cats). Popular cures and home remedies became vogue. Especially blood purifiers, bile beans, Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills and uncontaminated dairy products. One senior government minister went as far as to urge people to burn barrels of pitch and tar in the streets to purify the air.

The outbreak of 1900 highlighted the inadequacies of Sydney’s sanitary and housing situations, and also demonstrated that the public authorities were unable to cooperate and act decisively in times of crises.

There were twelve outbreaks of bubonic plague between 1900 and 1925. In total 1371 cases were reported and there were 535 deaths. The 1920’s saw most cases reported in Queensland.

There has been no futher outbreak of the plague in Australia since 1925.

**Reference: Plague in Sydney: The Anatomy of an Epidemic by Peter Curson & Kevin McCracken


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