Graphic depicting two men wearing medical masks.

Episode 4: The Second Wave

A second wave of influenza sweeps through New South Wales. The death rate climbs and hospitals are overwhelmed. Why are some groups of people dying at much higher rates than others?

Featuring public health expert Professor Peter Curson, virologist Dr Kirsty Short, Worimi man and historian Professor John Maynard and medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

MUSIC: Scott Joplin’s New Rag 1912: OnClassical, Cinematic: Moff, Cylinder Four: Chris Zabriskie, Belle Reve Lost: Simon Bowman, Fuguencelle: Eracilon, Sad Piano: DDmyzik, Le client: Grégoire Lourme, Funeral: Serge Quadrado, Mirage: Ad Libitum, Anxiety: Shymonmusic. (All tracks amended)

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Please be advised that this episode includes reference to historical events and language that may cause distress or offence to some listeners.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “With the Peace Ball in the Town Hall last night, the first big social function of its kind in NSW since the outbreak of war, Sydney can be said to have resumed its old, light-hearted way. For four long years, we have been a staid, sober community. The real Sydney, with all its light and life, was subordinated to the one thought of helping to win the war. Days of tears, of anxious watching and waiting. Then came the influenza, with its hideous masking and irritating restrictions to give people the doldrums. Little wonder after all this that the Peace Ball was eagerly awaited as a welcome reaction, the laughter of light hearts, the whirl of ever-lighter feet. It was a picture of joyous, pulsating life, a magnificent revel and it will long be remembered.”

ELISE EDMONDS: On 5th June, 1919, Sydney’s Town Hall played host to 1,800 revellers, a crazed maze of whirling figures celebrating the long-awaited peace. But under the myriad lights veiled behind yellow drapings, beneath the baskets of flowers and foliaged arches, among the merry laughter and chatter, the pneumonic influenza was spreading like wildfire. The event would certainly be remembered. In fact, it would become notorious. As the celebrations ended and people headed home, the first ripples began rolling out, quickly gaining size and speed as they grew into a second wave of infections and deaths more than twice the size of the first.


This is The Gatherings Order, a podcast about however far we think we’ve come, the past is much closer than it seems. In this episode, as the pneumonic influenza continues its sweep across NSW, we take a look at who was dying and try to understand why.

SABRINA: Hi. Can we sit down?


SABRINA: Thank you.

ELISE: It’s the 15th May 2020 and the world’s cases of COVID-19 continue to escalate, but here we’re still seeing a steady decline and today cafes and restaurants around NSW reopen to seated customers.

ELISE: A latte and a flat white. And we might split… You can’t split a Portuguese tart. You have to have two. Two Portuguese tarts. Yep, thank you.

ELISE: But in ten days’ time the pandemic will be knocked from the headlines by two huge events, the legal destruction of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cultural sites in the Pilbara by mining giant Rio Tinto and the police killing of African-American man George Floyd in the US. Despite public health orders, Black Lives Matter protesters will crowd streets around the world, risking their health to demand justice and an end to black deaths in custody. Links between these issues and the pandemic are not difficult to draw. In America, the black population are dying from coronavirus at a rate three times higher than the white. In Australia, if you’re a 50-year-old Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, you’re at the same risk of more serious illness if infected with coronavirus as a 70-year-old from any other background.

‘Pandemic’ is a word that’s been around for a long time. The first recorded use dates back to the 1600s, a century when the number of ships criss-crossing the globe was on the increase, taking their diseases with them. But the origins of ‘pandemic’ date back even further, to Ancient Greece. Much like its country of origin, pandemic is a word with very democratic ideas. It derives from ‘pandemos’, which simply translates as ‘all people’. But pandemics and the people that survive them are rarely a reflection of chance smiling equally on everyone. Your age, location and access to health care are just a few of the factors that might predetermine whether you survive or die. The pneumonic influenza wasn’t the first time Australia had experienced an influenza pandemic. The most recent was still a living memory, having appeared just 29 years before. Public health expert Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The significant influenza epidemic of 1890-’91, which was probably the first real great pandemic of influenza, where probably something like 600,000 people in Australia had influenza in 1890-’91.

ELISE: Though infection rates were high, the death rates were low. Numbers are difficult to come by but we know that fewer than 300 people died in Sydney. That flu was what epidemiologists consider typical in that the worst affected were either very old or very young but the Spanish flu behaved very differently.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: The most striking feature of the 1918-’19 flu pandemic was that for the first time in the history of flu epidemics, it affected young, healthy adults and that’s never happened before. The people who were most affected were those aged between 25 and 39. They made up about 25% of Sydney’s population but almost half all the influenza deaths, particularly men, who made up 61% of deaths. But certainly those people involved in everyday work, whether it was shopping, interacting with people or carting things or working on the wharves were probably the most vulnerable. You can imagine a society that had lost many young men in the war suddenly confronted with an infection that was taking young men again. And today there’s still debate about why that happened.

ELISE: One theory that attempts to explain why Spanish flu affected people in the prime of their lives has to do with the fact that many of them had been born during that first big influenza pandemic of 1890-’91.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: Some people have argued that somehow that affected their immune system, being confronted by that particular flu bacteria then, and that made them more susceptible. Now, it’s partly convincing but not completely.

ELISE: The other theory is also focused on immune response. Here’s Kirsty Short, virologist and Australian Research Fellow with the University of Queensland to explain.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Individuals who had severe forms of this disease, they typically weren’t dying from the virus but they were actually dying from this overzealous immune response. So obviously when you have a viral infection, you want your immune response to be active but your immune response exists in this really fine balance because as soon as it gets over-active it starts damaging the tissue in your lungs and that might have partially explained why people in the middle ages of life who are normally in their immunological prime, so to speak, were having more severe disease because they were having a more active immune response and in this particular context that was leading to more damage of the lungs.

ELISE: As the Deputy Director-General of Public Health William Armstrong explained at the time, “Probably the most striking clinical feature of this epidemic was the colour of the patients in the more severe cases. With the onset of definite pneumonia, the patient often became lilac or lavender-hued.” The medical journal The Lancet provided a similar description.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: They actually drew a picture of a patient in various stages of illness and what you saw at the time is that the patient’s lips became progressively more blue and that’s an indication that they weren’t getting oxygen and the reason they weren’t getting oxygen is because the immune response was just completely destroying their lung, the lung was filling with fluid and so instead of being able to take in air, they were almost drowning in their own fluid.

ELISE: While the Spanish flu was undoubtedly a horrible disease, Australia did manage to avoid the earliest and worst strains of it, evident in the comparatively low death rate. Once the virus arrived in Australia, it appears to have continued on its path of mutation.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: Some viruses mutate very quickly and are very easy to mutate. Influenza is one good example of that. This makes sense when you think about the flu vaccine where we have to keep updating it. Normally what happens when a virus replicates is you have a certain protein that goes along and checks the accuracy of the replication. So think of it sort of like a copy editor. What happens in viruses like flu is their copy editor is just really, really lousy. Maybe think of it as like the work experience kid who’s just been dumped with that responsibility and not trained. And so what happens is it allows lots of mutations to come through and then the virus adapts or becomes more virulent, perhaps not even more virulent, maybe more transmissible. That tends to be the more likely evolution. And then you can have the second wave.

ELISE: The pattern that Kirsty describes for viruses to mutate from more virulent to more contagious certainly seems to be reflected in Australia’s first and second waves and the Government took note. In the middle of June, as case rates began to shoot up for a second time, that the virus had become less deadly seems to have formed part of the justification for a wait-and-see approach rather than another hard lockdown. Instead of reimposing restrictions, Premier Holman cancelled the Government’s own large gatherings and expected the public to follow their example.

PREMIER WILLIAM HOLMAN: The Government has no desire to speak in any alarmist spirit but the public must realise that the number of cases are so increased that there is a real danger of the doctors and nurses of the city being overwhelmed if any further addition occurs. It may compel the Government to take stringent measures but it is hoped that with a realisation on the part of the general public of the gravity of the danger and the voluntary avoidance of the chances of infection, the rapid increase in the number of cases may be checked. Happily, the death rate has been strikingly low in comparison with the experiences of other parts of the world and even in comparison with their own early experiences.

ELISE: Yet still the numbers grew. State schools were closed but not as a containment measure.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Owing to the shortage of trained nurses, the Government has decided to call upon the teaching staffs of the state’s schools who did such excellent work during the severe form of the epidemic some months ago to render assistance to the depots.”

ELISE: There were almost continual urgent appeals throughout this period for medical staff and other workers to come forward. As encouragement, the Government had started insuring the lives of hospital employees who attended influenza patients, eventually extending this offering to all frontline public servants, but with little effect. As William Armstrong reflected in his post-pandemic report…

WILLIAM ARMSTRONG: “The maximum number of beds available for influenza cases at the hospital is enumerated 2,000. In addition, a portion of the grandstand at the Randwick Racecourse was requestioned and equipped as a 500-bed hospital. But owing to the shortage of doctors and nurses in Sydney, it was never brought into use, although at two periods of the epidemic when the emergency was greatest these beds were badly needed.”

ELISE: Peter Curson.

PROFESSOR PETER CURSON: It’s interesting. There’s no detailed information on how many people caught influenza in Australia, particularly in NSW. There’s one survey and it was carried out in 1919 by the State Government in Sydney and that looked at 600 establishments – banks, government departments, city offices, shops and whatever. It involved 106,000 employees working in that situation and they found that 37% of them had flu. Largely they were responsible also for spreading it around, obviously, because they were dealing with other people and you can imagine the impact that had on society.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday June 25th. In some suburbs, the disease has visited almost every house in every street. In fact, whole families have been ill at once. In the flats of Darlinghurst, Randwick, Cremorne, Kirribilli and North Sydney few of the occupants have escaped the disease which has swept through from floor to floor with amazing rapidity. Every large business in the city, every public institution and utility has had to carry on with greatly depleted staffs.”

ELISE: Medical historian Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Across Australia, the death rate went up by 25% through 1919, almost all of it due to pneumonic influenza and complications for people who already had existing respiratory diseases or heart disease as well, so for every 100 people who we would’ve expected to die in 1919, 125 people died.


NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, Thursday 19th June 1919. The Maitland district has practically surrendered to the influenza epidemic, causing a paralysis in business never experienced in the worst strike period. Public offices, shops, factories are practically at a standstill. Fortunately, the percentage of serious or pneumonic cases is very low.”

ELISE: While reports repeatedly emphasised the drop in virulence there was still a high level of fear among the public. The Government’s policy for compulsory isolation of the sick began to backfire and was eventually abandoned. As the post-pandemic report lamented…

“During the height of the epidemic, compulsory isolation of the sick and their contacts was found to have a negative value because neighbours would refuse to enter a house to render assistance even when all inmates were stricken and other help was unobtainable. In some towns, yellow flags and other symbols were displayed to warn the public from entering the invaded premises and this was cruelly insisted on in some districts where, unfortunately, the local authorities made no efforts to provide proper help for the stricken inhabitants.”

ELISE: One such incident was reported in mid-June by the Dorrigo Gazette. It told of the Nymboida Shire Council failing to respond to reports of a family where several members were on the brink of death.

“A family left in such appalling circumstances to die like flies, to be isolated in in a way back place and left to their doom is revolting. There is no person in the district capable of giving attention and the Nymboida Shire, which apparently is devoid of a humanitarian instinct, has made no provision for any. The Shire’s duty was to give relief, instead of which we find nothing done. If the circumstances are as stated, then the Council should be prosecuted.”

ELISE: Stories of whole families struck down by the pandemic are not difficult to come by. Many children were left without one or both parents and though they were the least affected demographic, 432 children aged 14 years or younger died across NSW. In 2017, the library received a donation from descendants of one such family, the Butlers, who were living in the Sydney suburb of Balmain when pneumonic influenza took their 14-year-old son, Keith. The donation includes telegrams, cards and letters of condolence received by parents Syd and Lil and Keith’s sister Gwen in the weeks and months following his death.

ELISE: (IN LIBRARY) We’ve got these…beautiful…

SABRINA: Oh, wow. Very ornate.

ELISE: Yeah. So this was obviously something that you would purchase at the time. They’re little printed cards and there’s these beautiful little emblems and artwork on them, so this one says, “With deepest sympathy,” and it’s tied with a little bit of black string.

SABRINA: Oh, this is a good one with embossed silver leaves. “Suffer little children to come unto me.”

ELISE: So that’s obviously a special mourning card designed for mourning of children.

SABRINA: Yeah, wow. This is a longer letter. “Dear Auntie Lil… (VOICE FADES, ACTRESS CONTINUES)

“..I was terribly sorry to hear from Kathleen about poor Keith. I hope Gwen, Uncle and yourself are quite rid of the influenza by this time. It still seems to be very bad down in the city. There are a few cases in Hay now.”

SABRINA: Wow, so the whole family had it. “Love to you all, Vic.” Wow, look at this little one. “Life is very sad for many these days but we know it will all end and that we shall have such great joy. ”Mm, something about being with God.

ELISE: Yeah, I’ve got here, “The poor little chap is released from suffering and will doubtless be happy now in a better world. I’m glad you all got well from the influenza. It is raging in this little town.”

SABRINA: Oh, wow, where is he writing from?”

ELISE: Is it Rylstone? “Poor little chap, he was always so delicate.”

SABRINA: This one says, “I feel so sorry for your father. He was always so wrapped up in Keith.”



“..I’m so grieved for you but it’s useless to try and express my sorrow. I did not know of poor Keith’s death for a day or two after it had happened as I very seldom read the death notices. Poor little kid. I’ve been thinking of you such a lot lately and wondering how things were with you and if you were escaping the epidemic. I know a lot of people will say it’s all for the best but a mother never thinks that way, at least not till her sorrow is much older. We keep them always.”

ELISE: So, it’s from Jindabyne. Oh, it’s from the police station at Jindabyne via Cooma.

“Lil said you were very, very ill with influenza when Keith took ill. It would be doubly hard for you, knowing that he was so ill and that you were not able to nurse him. Your loss, I am sure, is a very keen one as you have always had Keith near you, so you will miss him sadly. But your loss is his gain. This is a very poor attempt at a letter but it’s hard to express one’s feelings by letter. With fondest love and our very sincerest sympathy, yours lovingly, Viv.”

ELISE: That’s a good letter.

SABRINA: It’s a beautiful letter.

ELISE: So these last two packets are relating to the actual funeral services that were provided and this tiny little business card that says “J. Matthews, Clarinettist.”


ELISE: So obviously they had a person play the clarinet and we’ve actually got here, I think, an invoice for “the furnishing and conducting funeral of the late Keith Sydney Butler.” So his middle name is Sydney. That’s his dad’s name. “Aged 14 years and 11 months.” So they’re talking about the details of the casket. “Finished with plinths and mouldings and mounted with silver-plated handles and other ornaments, including breastplate with name, age and date of death engraved thereon, complete with inside trimmings of first quality, together with hire of two horses, hearse and two carriages from Long Nose Point to the Congregational Cemetery, Gore Hill.

SABRINA:  £24.10.

ELISE: Yep. They really…

SABRINA: Gave him a good send-off with a two-horse hearse.

ELISE: Exactly. Yeah. So that is just one family’s…

SABRINA: Little experience.

ELISE: Experiences.

ELISE: Over the worst four weeks of the epidemic, from late June through to mid-July, nearly 3,000 are reported to have died across NSW. But there were two sections of the population who were not included in these official figures. The first and largest of these was the Aboriginal community.

DR PETER HOBBINS: In Aboriginal communities our figures are really bad. We don’t know, in NSW, what the impact of pneumonic influenza was but in Queensland and in communities in northern NSW Aboriginal people who were in an infected community were dying at about 10-11% when the rest of NSW were dying at half a percent so a twentyfold increase in deaths that year amongst Aboriginal people. I’m always very cautious about being firm on those figures, our data are very dodgy, but even so that’s roughly the scale of the problem and that’s a shocking impact, particularly along the east coast. And that’s again another what we might call silent pandemic, it just wasn’t well recorded.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Mr L.F. Ward, Relieving Secretary of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, states that in the recent outbreak of pneumonic influenza at Runnymede Aboriginal Station, six miles from Kyogle, 30 of the inhabitants out of a total population of 59, exclusive of the manager and his family, are reported to be affected. The Board of Health has provided nurses and everything possible is being done for the patients who range in caste from octoroons to full-bloods. Splendid work is being done by the police. Dr Armstrong of the Board of Health stated yesterday that the Aboriginal patients had all been isolated and precautions were being taken to prevent the camp from being a source of danger to the white population.

ELISE: The exclusion of Aboriginal deaths from the official record is in many ways a reflection of how Government policy and public opinion had been shaped in Australia since Federation, when the idea of a white Australia became enshrined in federal law.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: 1901, if you look at Federation, I think the process of nationhood was all about removing Aboriginal people from the landscape and then in the record, if you like, and through Government policy they had it in their mind that we, as a people, belonged to the Stone Age and were a dying race. And that’s the reality and we’d quickly disappear.

ELISE: John Maynard is a Worimi man and Professor of Indigenous Education and Research at the University of Newcastle.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: But in NSW we were under the control of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board that had been set up in 1883. You’ve also got to remember that the chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Protection Board was also the NSW Aboriginal Police Commissioner.

ELISE: Each year, the Protection Board included a census of the Aboriginal population in their reports but even they acknowledged their numbers couldn’t be trusted.

REPORT: “These figures can only be taken as approximate owing to the difficulty in collecting the returns on account of the nomadic habits of the race.”

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: Now, I think for around that time period, off the top of my head, the board figures were something like 7,000 Aboriginal people in NSW but the reality is, I mean, you’ve got Aboriginal people operating independently. A lot of the people were refugees in their own country at that point, a lot of Aboriginal people had been fleeing to Sydney. There was work, particularly after the war. You know, my grandfather was a dock worker, there were a number of Aboriginal dock workers in Sydney, there were numbers of Aboriginal men working in the railway yards at Eveleigh and Chullora but you could also lose yourself in the city away from the clutches of the board.

ELISE: By 1919, any autonomy still held by Aboriginal people was fast being rescinded. While there were still communities camping on Country and in some cases running independent farms, more and more land was being taken and Aboriginal people were being moved onto Protection Board properties.

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: This also ties in with the escalation of the removing of Aboriginal children, which really takes off during this time period. There’s records there that you’ve got Aboriginal men over in Gallipoli or on the Western Front fighting for their so-called country and yet their children are being torn away from them back home and institutionalised. This was also to break down the communities and break down the families and really, you know, you can imagine the assault – you think about your own kids being torn away from you and we’re talking about thousands of Aboriginal kids removed. The boys were to be trained as labourers and the girls as domestic servants. I mean, there was no real education for them in those institutions.

ELISE: The Cootamundra Home for Girls and the Singleton Home for Boys are among 30-some reserves, homes and stations mentioned in the Aboriginal Protection Board’s report for the year 1919-’20. In four brief pages it summarises:

“The numbers, location and present condition of the Aborigines throughout the state and the means adopted for their relief as far as the funds at our disposal would admit.”

ELISE: In it, while the board regrets the state of disrepair and overcrowding of much of its accommodation, when it comes to the handling of the influenza epidemic they report success.

“It became necessary to take special measures on Aboriginal stations and reserves to combat the disease. Consequently, reserves were quarantined and nurses were dispatched to attend the Aborigines. The mortality among the Aborigines was surprisingly low and this was no doubt attributable to the energetic efforts put forth by the board’s managers, matrons and the police.”

PROFESSOR JOHN MAYNARD: I haven’t seen a lot of records of where medical people were sent in, what I’ve seen is a lot of Aboriginal people being buried. The more heavily congested and controlled reserves at that particular point - Cherbourg, Barambah, as it was then in Queensland, Taroom, another one in Queensland, and Kyogle in northern NSW, there were big numbers of Aboriginal deaths per capita and when you were in a very confined space and when your housing is inadequate, your clothing is inadequate, your diet is inadequate, I mean, you’re going to suffer and you’re going to be the section of the community that will have the greatest impact upon it. And quite a number of accounts said Aboriginal people were fleeing those locations to try and get away from the disease and so that was assisting the spread.

NEWSPAPER REPORT: “Three more persons, including a child, seven years of age, died in a Stony Gully camp within the 48 hours ending at noon yesterday. Nearly 40 Aboriginals in the camp are affected with the disease. There are a number seriously ill. One Aboriginal who broke quarantine was so ill that it is believed he has since died in the bush. The police are still searching for the missing man.”

ELISE: The other segment of the Australian population not included in the official influenza death figures were unborn or stillborn babies. Peter Hobbins.

DR PETER HOBBINS: Now, if you were pregnant and had pneumonic influenza and had to go to hospital your chance of dying was almost triple what it would be if you weren’t pregnant, as a woman. If you were still carrying your child they would almost certainly be stillborn. If the child was born alive, if the woman was at term or nearly at term, their chance of dying was about 30% as well. And just on that note of maternal and infant mortality, we often don’t hear about that. A lot of those stillborn cases weren’t reported, they weren’t recorded as a birth or a death and so we have, I think, what you might think of as a silent pandemic there as well. And there’s very little recognition of that extra grief of the families who lost those children through 1919 so there was certainly a dramatic drop in the birth rate in 1919, partly, I think, for that reason and partly because people possibly were holding off having children.

ELISE: As families across the country were still burying their dead, final preparations were being made for Peace Day. The Treaty of Versailles, marking the official end of the war, had finally been signed and Australia was going to mark the occasion with huge parades all around the country. The week that the flags and bunting were going up, 300 people died of pneumonic influenza across NSW. As had been the case since the first outbreaks in January, Victoria’s infection rate had been slightly ahead of NSW. Their second wave had hit the previous month. The death rate stayed high for three weeks then dropped as suddenly as it had risen. Though New Zealand had suffered through a third wave the NSW Government was now relying on their state to follow the same pattern as Victoria.

ELISE: OK, so we are in Bay 108B. Oh, it must be down the other end.

There’s a large photograph in the library’s collection that shows just how prepared people were to accept this information from the Government, though people were still dying as the Peace Day Parade set out through crowded streets.

This is it here. it is such a great image.

SABRINA: It’s like a sepia print that’s been blown up over two metres.

ELISE:  So there’s so much happening. So it’s documenting the Peace March and the photographer has got this fantastic sweeping view back up Macquarie Street towards Hyde Park. You can see all of the crowds, you can see – this looks like naval personnel marching.

SABRINA: But there’s all these beautiful flags lining the street as well. It must have been really colourful.

ELISE: You can see the drummers and… The band.

SABRINA: Brass band playing and all these men in their uniforms, sailors, soldiers.  Look at her in the nurse’s cap.

ELISE: This is cute, the little girl here with the little white stockings on and a little white coat.

SABRINA: Oh, yeah.

ELISE: I mean, the more you look, the more you see, isn’t it, it’s just one of these fascinating huge images that just has so much detail.

SABRINA: But there must be thousands of people in this photograph. It’s like 20-deep on the footpaths. No-one is wearing a mask.

ELISE: So this is July. Yeah, July. This is July the 19th so the peak is coming down, right? But still.

SABRINA: Even though people were still dying in pretty large numbers when this was happening there’s no evidence of it. I mean, if everyone was wearing a mask, of course you would be thinking in that framework but not a single person has got one on.

ELISE: My feeling is, you know, they’d obviously been through the worst months, right, and it was an opportunity for everyone to turn out to celebrate. And of course, this isn’t just happening here in Sydney, right? So, yeah, I guess it was judged that, you know, it’s better to be patriotic and to celebrate the victory and the peace than concerns about spreading the influenza again.

ELISE: Fortunately, the predictions of a fast and final drop in infections proved correct and the record charting the course of the epidemic was stopped the week ending 30th September with 14 deaths. Around the same time, the final troopships made it home. Kirsty Short.

DR KIRSTY SHORT: What happened with the 1918 flu is that that virus didn’t necessarily disappear but what happened is that over time it just became less dangerous in the population, partly due to improved immunity in the general population by exposure but also perhaps due to changes in the virus. It circulated in the human population as a seasonal flu strain until 1957 when it was kicked out of the human population by a new flu pandemic that came along. So it’s actually an incredible story of virus evolution and virus on virus battle, really, if you think about it like that.

ELISE: Across NSW in 1919, 6,244 deaths due to pneumonic influenza had been recorded, 3,902 in Sydney and 2,474 across the rest of the state. As the end of 1919 neared, there were still reports of the occasional death but Australia and the world were seeing the final clouds clear, the end of a terrible and perfect storm. A brutal war and a deadly pandemic were over. Now the recovery could begin.

PROFESSOR FRANK BONGIORNO: The flu doesn’t have a devastating economic impact on Australia. It’s the First World War that has a devastating economic impact.

ELISE: That’s next time on The Gatherings Order. Many thanks to Peter Curson, Kirsty Short, Peter Hobbins and John Maynard for taking the time to share their knowledge with us and thanks to you for listening. If you have a moment to rate and review The Gatherings Order please do. It helps other people find the podcast.

SABRINA: You wouldn’t know, like, as you walk through, you wouldn’t know for the most part that you’re in a cemetery until you stumble over a headstone.

ELISE: That’s right. It just looks like a big, beautiful expanse of wildflowers in the bush. So this is the headstone of a nurse, Annie Egan. She died at the age of 27 and she was actually nursing people at the quarantine station and, sadly, she obviously caught the virus herself. And it actually says down the bottom of her headstone, “Her life was sacrificed to duty.”

SABRINA: Shall we walk down to the bottom?

ELISE: Yeah.


ELISE: It’s really sandy, too, isn’t it, this amazing, fine, white sand up here?

SABRINA: Oh, wow, look at these ones. There’s quite a number of slabs that obviously don’t have any identification but presumably they’re from the same sort of period.

ELISE: These are plaques that have been laid much more recently and I think it’s acknowledging the fact that there’s a number of AIF members who are buried in this grave. They were all men who had enlisted in 1918 to be reinforcements, to be sent across to the Western Front, then of course the war ends with the Armistice and the boat basically turned around, it returned to Sydney via New Zealand and the flu had already broken out in New Zealand so a lot of the troops who got off in New Zealand had picked up the influenza so by the time they came back to Sydney a lot of those people on the Medic died of influenza. And here we have another man, “William Campbell Menzies, beloved son of Charles and Jessie Menzies of Dunedin, New Zealand, who departed this life on 11th November, 1918, aged 30 years.” So he died presumably of the flu on the day that the Armistice was signed.

SABRINA: “Unknown to the world we stand by his side and whimper the words, ‘Death cannot…

BOTH: ‘..divide.’”

ELISE: If you’re in Sydney between 5th September 2020 and the 24th January 2021, be sure to swing by the State Library to see Pandemic, a display which includes a number of the items we’ve talked about in this podcast