Comparing Pandemic Experiences: Influenza in Australia and New Zealand

Woman in Quarantine Protective Wear, Australia, 1918

Australian woman wearing medical protective gear during the influenza pandemic, 1919

From the collection of the National Archives of Australia

Comparing Pandemic Experiences: the 1919 Influenza Pandemic in Australia

The symptoms of the 1918 influenza pandemic were similarly experienced around the world. Its prevention and control typically intersected with a region’s cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions. In other words, each community has its own influenza stories to tell.

A case in point is Australia, where the 1918 pandemic (referred as the 1919 pandemic in Australia) played out across a backdrop of cultural and political factors. When the pandemic swept the continent, political drama between the Australian states influenced country-wide quarantine procedures.

Man in Quarantine Protective Wear, Australia, 1918

Australian man wearing medical protective gear during the influenza pandemic, 1919

From the collection of the National Archives of Australia

A Different Perspective of the 1918 Pandemic

In mid-1918, Australian quarantine officials received reports about an emerging influenza pandemic sweeping across the world. Due to its remoteness, Australia had months to prepare for the approaching pandemic. As the pandemic devastated the neighboring islands of New Zealand, the Australian Quarantine Service made the decision in October 1918 to begin quarantine procedures at every Australian port. Strict quarantines remained in place until the end of the pandemic. 

In November 1918, the Australian federal government assembled a conference to plan a response to the pandemic. Conference attendees agreed that the federal government would alert the states if infection was detected within a state. These measures only walled off the pandemic for so long. The first Australian cases of pandemic influenza occurred in Melbourne in January 1919. When uncertainty delayed the confirmation that influenza had reached Melbourne, other states viewed the action as a breach of the November agreement. Each state began to make its own public health arrangements.

Over the next six months, the virus, which became known as “pneumonic influenza,” infected about 40 percent of Australia’s population and killed about 15,000 people. Aboriginal communities reported mortality rates of 50 percent, and some tribes were almost completely wiped out.

Inhalatorium, Abbotsford, Australia, 1918

“Inhalatorium” at the Kodak Australasia Pty. Ltd. Factory

Museums Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

Courtesy of Kodak Australasia Pty. Ltd.

Methods of Prevention: The “Inhalatorium”

This “inhalatorium” was installed to protect workers’ health at the Kodak Australasia Proprietary Ltd. Factory in Abbotsford, New South Wales. This inhalatorium was one of many found in towns across Australia during the pandemic. Steam carrying a zinc sulfate solution would waft from the structure in the center of the room into the faces of people surrounding it. It was believed at the time that the steam would disinfect the throats of those who breathed it in, thus protecting them from the pandemic. Workers were given this treatment twice a day.  

Similar Methods of Prevention: The Isolation Hospital at Jubilee Exhibition Building in Adelaide, South Australia

The Australian state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, did not report confirmed influenza cases until two weeks after they occurred. This caused tension among the Australian states, with many considering the November agreement breached. After this, each Australian state issued its own quarantine measures.

South Australia established an isolation hospital at Jubilee Exhibition Building, a facility originally built to celebrate Australia’s 50th anniversary as an English colony, as well as Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. 

South Australian travelers visiting Melbourne before the breakdown of the November agreement were quarantined at the Jubilee Exhibition Building for one week. One hundred tents were provided, as well as food and bedding.

While rumors spread that the inhabitants of the quarantine were miserable, many of those quarantined reported that they were well cared for, and that there were no cases of influenza in the camp. People in quarantine organized cricket matches and nightly musical performances for entertainment during their one-week stay.

Women at Commonwealth Serum Laboratories packing mixed bacterial composition vaccines

Courtesy of Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, Melbourne, Australia

Preparing Mixed Bacterial Vaccines

Despite not knowing what microorganism was causing the pandemic, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories created more than 3 million doses of vaccine between October 1918 and March 1919. The free vaccine was distributed to the public and Australian troops.

While the vaccine did not protect people from the influenza virus, which still had not been discovered, the mixed bacterial composition of the vaccine may have reduced some secondary bacterial infections.

Carved wooden cenotaph at Te Kōura marae. Photograph by Albert Percy Godber. Courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library

Remembering Devastating Outbreaks among Māori during the 1918 Pandemic in New Zealand

Outbreaks of influenza began in Auckland (on the North Island) in October 1918, and escalated to a devasting peak by November. Soon after, cities on the South Island began experiencing outbreaks.

More than 2,000 Māori New Zealanders and 6,000 Pakeha (European) New Zealanders died. Māori communities were particularly affected, suffering a death rate eight times higher than that of Pakeha.

To commemorate the dead, Māori carver Tene Waitere of Ngāti Tarāwhai, a Te Arawa Waka iwi (tribe) based in the North Island of New Zealand, erected two wooden memorials, one of which is pictured here.

1918 Influenza Pandemic
Comparing Pandemic Experiences: Influenza in Australia and New Zealand