Early Days at the Coast Hospital (renamed Prince Henry Hospital in 1934)

It's interesting to note that in 1961 at Prince Henry Hospital, as novice nurses, we lined up at Dr Symington’s clinic to have a smallpox vaccination, with no idea why it was necessary.

I didn't know at the time the genesis behind this action but with research, I discovered that the infectious communicable disease, smallpox, had played a very important role in the life of Prince Henry Hospital  (formerly, The Coast Hospital) for many years. I do remember feeling very unwell, following the vaccination, and being dragged along to attend the Royal Easter Show in April of 1961. My arm felt as if it was going to drop off and when among the crowd, I screeched 'smallpox!', the crowd very quickly parted and my passage for walking made clear.

The steamship, Brisbane, arrived in Port Jackson in 1881, having navigated its way from Hong Kong with 106 Chinese men on board, plus oil, preserves, tea, cigars, opium, and rolls of matting for the fledgling colony. Due to an undiagnosed smallpox case on board, the Brisbane went to North Head where it stayed for several weeks until health clearance was carried out and any suspiciously ill persons removed and hospitalised, if one could call it 'hospitalised' in the primitive surrounds of very limited care under the supervision of Superintendent Carroll. Smallpox had always generated concern and panic due to its very contagious nature and the fear generated from a survival rate as low as 30 per cent.

It's commendable that NSW authorities, under the watchful eyes of Dr Haynes Alleyne, had very quickly put in place a quarantine station to receive any persons deemed unwell, and indeed those who were or had been in contact with anyone suspected of having smallpox. To add to this uncertainty, a child of On Chong, a Chinese merchant living in Lower George Street, came down with fever and a rash. The media scrum suspected smallpox and the child’s house was soon quarantined, with a policeman posted outside the door and barricades placed around the home. As a consequence, a steady stream of residents attended the local GP’s practice for a smallpox vaccination.

So damaging would the treatment be at North Head to all concerned, including the media and those in the local population who did not have smallpox, that a Royal Commission was established. The outcome of the Royal Commission was the etablishment of a NSW Board of Health that went on to mandate an Infectious Diseases Supervision Act of 1881. This Act continues today, albeit with several modifications. This meant that all infectious diseases had to be recorded, together with a much needed and dedicated ambulance service with infectious disease trained staff.

Bell tents were set up on Little Bay beach to receive the persons with smallpox and the Coast Hospital got under way. During this period between May1881 and February 1882, 154 cases of smallpox were registered and 40 people died. Construction of more substantial accommodation along the cliff tops facing the Pacific Ocean proceeded apace. The construction material was timber and corrugated iron without lining that let in the vigorous breezes experienced at the Coast Hospital — quite a challenge for both patients and staff. Among the Indigenous population the mortality rate was as high as 50 percent with very few surviving smallpox. Many patients with infectious diseases — scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough, leprosy, smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, and poliomyelitis were admitted to the Coast Hospital, and more recently Prince Henry Hospital. However, now, there is no dedicated infectious diseases hospital in New South Wales.

References

  • Allen, R / Smallpox Epidemic 1881.
  • The Dictionary of Sydney / National Library, Canberra.
  • Boughton, C / The History of Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney.
  • ABC Radio / Sydney transcript.

Author

Dr Barbara Newman RN; BN. Post Grad. Tropical Disease; MHPEd; MOccHealth; PhD.