The beautiful Royal Exhibition Building in Carlton Gardens is currently being used as a vaccination centre in the current battle with COVID 19. Did you know that one hundred years ago the building was being used for another pandemic – the post-WWI influenza pandemic which ravaged the world?
The outbreak took hold in the battlefields of Europe in late 1918 and spread around the world with returning soldiers. Instead of the happy Christmas reunions the soldiers were expecting, they returned to a country in crisis.
The flu reached Australia in late October 1918 and by January 1919 all major hospitals were at capacity. Despite many state schools becoming temporary hospitals, demand was such that more space was required.
There were too few nurses and doctors to care for patients as many were still with the armed forces overseas or ill with flu themselves.
On 30 January 1919 the Victorian Health Minister issued ‘Influenza Emergency Regulations’ under the 1915 Health Act. Public meetings of more than 20 people were prohibited, travel in long-distance trains was restricted, public buildings were closed and NSW closed the border with Victoria. People were encouraged to wear masks in public places. The imposition of a strict maritime quarantine in late 1918 and early 1919 helped pause the spread.
On one day alone – 19th March 1919 – there were 350 patients accommodated at the makeshift hospital. 73 new cases of influenza and seven deaths were announced for Victoria, three of those deaths took place at the Exhibition Building hospital.
Over 4000 patients were treated in the building in 1919. One young survivor named Jewell later wrote “People died like flies. Orderlies coming in day and night with stretchers, removing dead bodies, and marching through the aisles to a holding room; the basement became a temporary morgue”.
Beds for female patients were between the concert platform in the west and the dome; male patients were in the spaces beyond. It was a grand yet draughty, spartan space; each bed had an electric light slung over it from wires festooned above. Nurses reportedly appealed to the public for pot plants and flowers “to brighten the cavernous wards”.
A description of the difficulty of their job is highlighted by one nurse:
‘What with four-hourly linseed poultices (mixed at high speed in the day-room, where the kettle of boiling water was, and rushed at the double), brandy, rum, egg-flips, spongings and morphia—even those with the brightest prospects required constant hard nursing, while delirious ones had to be coaxed into subjection and persuaded to remain in bed… Pneumonia patients were kept sitting upright, tied, by means of a pillow under the knees, to the back of the bed, to maintain position. This was not easy. They were usually big solid men, they were very sick, and they slipped easily or sagged over to one side… They coughed and spat up thick sticky sputum which they found difficulty in getting out of their mouths and into the spittoons. They had to be helped to reach the spittoons on their lockers. They had to be lifted back into position frequently and the poultices and wrappings made them heavy and awkward to handle.’
Cubicles were set up in the banqueting room and committee rooms for the nurses’ quarters. Some also slept on verandas behind the western annexe.
Before being allowed to leave, recovered patients were subject to a “fumigation” with steam and eucalyptus, said Jewell. “We were put into a steam-heated room with other discharged patients to ensure that we were totally free from any contaminating virus.”
Between the temporary hospital opening in February 1919 and closing that August, 500 beds was increased to accommodate over 4000 patients, 392 of whom died. According to Museums Victoria, an estimated 12,500 people died of “Spanish” flu in Australia, 30% of them Victorians. Others put the number as high as 15,000. Worldwide, it is estimated between 25-50 million people died, many deaths due to bacterial pneumonia in lungs weakened by influenza.
There were no vaccines and no antibiotics and the disease killed the very young and old alike. It was known as the deadliest global pandemic since the Black Death. And it never really went away. The H1N1 strain that caused the 1918-19 influenza pandemic stuck around and became the regular seasonal flu.
I find it fascinating how history seems to repeat, repeat, repeat. As they say – there’s nothing new!!
Image: 1919 REB Museums Victoria
Image: 2021 REB Vaccination Centre: Daniel Pockett: AAPIMAGE
The Age: article by Kerrie O’Brien: Sep 30,2020 “People died like flies: Spanish flu and the Exhibition Building”
The Handover: July 2020 edition. https://otr.anmfvic.asn.au/articles/an-earlier-pandemic-spanish-influenza-in-victoria
The Armidale Express: article by Callum Godde: Mar 23, 2021 “New Vic vaccine hub’s Spanish flu history”
The Age: “Influenza Epidemic, Exhibition Building Hospital”, 20 Mar 1919, p7
Jeffery K. Taubenberger & Morens, David M: “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics” EID JOURNAL Vol 12, No 1, Jan 2006. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/12/1/05-0979_article