News & Events

Protecting OCAV residents from the 1918-19 Influenza epidemic

April 27, 2019

The worldwide influenza epidemic at the end of World War I was incomprehensibly huge.  Between 20 and 40 million people died worldwide, far more than were killed in combat; some estimates are higher than 50 million. Australia’s casualties were around 12 or 13 thousand.  OCAV took special steps to protect its residents.

The Council minutes of January 1919 record that the honorary medical officer of ‘The Homes’, Dr Taylor Downie, advised against the annual boat trip to Sorrento scheduled for 4 February in ‘view of the prevalence of influenza’.  At the same time, the Council instructed the Secretary to find out how many residents wanted to be inoculated.

The February minutes note receipt of a letter from one of the residents who was planning to leave ‘The Homes’, but requested as a favour to be allowed to remain ‘until the Plague has abated’.

As the epidemic escalated, the Association adopted more systematic measures.  Dr Downie inoculated all residents who chose free of charge, provided the Association obtained the serum.  It did – 20 doses for a cost of £2/15/0.  Matron Wijnbladh and four of the residents took advantage of this offer and four more were inoculated by their own doctors[1].  As well, Dr Downie drafted a message that was posted on the notice board, advising residents not to proceed outside the grounds, to avoid mixing with the public, and also to avoid entertaining their friends.[2]

For some months after this, each Council meeting received a report on the health of the residents, without mentioning the word ‘influenza’, and those reports were to the effect that the residents were well, except for accidents.  In fact, there were no further mentions of the word ‘influenza’ in the Council minutes for the rest of 1919.

Nevertheless, Dr Downie’s recommendations to avoid leaving the grounds and not to mix with other people were increasingly ignored.  The friendly bowls games with the Ballarat Old Colonists Association went ahead in March. The epidemic did not interfere with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the OCAV in June, when there was a concert held in Sumner Hall.

However, an article in the Age in 1921 suggests that three residents did die of influenza during the epidemic[3].

[1]Council minutes, 28 February 1919
[3]The Age, 12 April 1921, p. 6, headlined ‘Life’s Eventide’

Caption: Hospital Beds in Great Hall During Influenza Pandemic, Melbourne Exhibition Building, Carlton, Victoria, circa 1919. Unknown photographer

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