Skip to main content

Guest Blog | Author Matthew Wengert on the Spanish Flu

7 May 2020

The epidemic of Pneumonic Influenza (or ‘Spanish Flu’) in Brisbane in 1919 was a local outbreak of the pandemic that began in early 1918, and which killed more than 50 million people before it ended in 1920.

The first Queenslanders to die of the ‘Flu’ were Anzac soldiers in England and France. This particular influenza was different, in that it caused more illness and death among young adults––so it was especially dangerous to armies full of young men. It was returning soldiers who brought the disease home to Australia. The first cases within Queensland were at the quarantine station at Lytton, and the first cases in Brisbane were diagnosed at the Kangaroo Point Military Hospital in early May.

Within days the hospitals were overwhelmed, with dozens of nurses falling ill. Nurses would continue to bear the brunt of the epidemic, because of their close work with dangerously sick patients. My book, ‘City in Masks: How Brisbane Fought the Spanish Flu’, is dedicated to three Brisbane nurses who died of the disease. The RNA Exhibition Grounds were opened as an Isolation Hospital, and later another emergency epidemic hospital was opened at St Laurence’s college in South Brisbane. When the ambulance drivers were too sick to work, police officers transported patients––until so many police had the Flu that they asked for their own hospital, so they wouldn’t be next to the sick criminals they knew.

By the time the epidemic waned in mid-July, more than 300 people had died of the Flu in Brisbane. This was our city’s deadliest disaster, at a time when the 19 local government areas that comprised Brisbane had a total population of 190 000. A similar mortality rate today would see thousands of deaths in Brisbane. The Flu impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, with strict regulations governing how people lived and worked––from closing the state border, to closing places of entertainment and sports, regulating church services and funerals, and even rules on how cafes had to wash dishes. Telephone calls were up, but telephone exchange staff were sick, like everyone else; gas supplies were rationed, bakeries weren’t baking bread, shops and factories were shut; trams and train services were reduced, meaning more people had to walk to work during those chilly months.

When the Brisbane City Council funded my research on this epidemic (through the Helen Taylor History Research Award), I knew I would find a difficult story of loss and sadness, but I did not yet know that I’d also discover a remarkable and uplifting story of the women who fought the Spanish Flu in Brisbane. More than a thousand women volunteered to help their communities, forming groups in every district––usually called the ‘Women’s Emergency Corps’, but also the ‘South Brisbane Vigilance Committee’ and the ‘Stephens Anti-Epidemic League’––to carry out very humble, but extremely heroic, work to save many hundreds of lives. They rolled up their sleeves, tied on aprons and flimsy face-masks, and they went into homes to feed and comfort people who were too sick to take care of themselves. Often they found whole families stricken and helpless. And these women went out each day, street by street, house by house, risking infection while facing down the deadliest disease in human history to help keep their friends and neighbours alive. It’s a story Brisbane can be proud of. 




Image 1: Cover of City in Masks designed by Caitlin Morgan. Image 2: Large group, Ithaca Town Council Chambers in Red Hill Queensland 1919, State Library of Queensland. Image 3: Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld. 1903 - 1926), Monday 26 May 1919, page 5 - Fighting the Flu, Women's Emergency Corps, National Library.  Image 4: Brisbane Courier (Qld. 1864 - 1933), Saturday 3 May 1919, page 5 - Highly Infectious Type, National Library. Image 5: Ithaca influenza epidemic workers, July 1919, State Library of Queensland.