Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague struck terror in Sydney in 1900. Also known as The Black Death, this – at least the third global pandemic – was carried from China and India on trade routes, so most infections occurred near the harbour.

There was no cure, mortality rates were usually 50% and victims died in agony. Nobody was sure how infection occurred or how to treat or contain it. Wealthy citizens fled to Katoomba; Chinese in the City were often scapegoated. While Sydney Council dithered, Premier William Lyne imposed Dr George MacCredie on the City Plague Department, and (allied with Chief Medical Officer Dr John Ashburton Thompson) parts of the CBD were quarantined and cleared, many rats killed, and badly-built wharves and noxious substances removed.

Only 300 Sydneysiders contracted plague, and only a third died, but (because Lyne wanted to avoid panic) hundreds of people were despatched to North Head Quarantine station.

Thompson wrote an influential report on the episode, emphasising the role of insects in epidemics, which encouraged the State government to embark on “slum clearance”, closed open tips such as that at Moore Park, and build garbage disposal facilities in Pyrmont, including the Burley Griffin incinerator. Armstrong went on to demonstrate the mechanism whereby fleas from infected rats carried plague to people. After this episode, plague continued to reach Australian ports, but with much less impact.

Related Items