The 1918–19 influenza pandemic became known as the Spanish flu, but not because it was Spanish in origin. As a neutral country during the First World War, Spain didn’t censor its press, which meant newspapers were free to report that the King and many of his subjects had contracted the disease that was already ravaging much of Western Europe. The word ‘influenza’ originates from fifteenth century Italy, when an upper respiratory tract infection was thought to be ‘influenced’ by the stars.
The history and impact of the influenza pandemic on New South Wales can be seen through collections at the Library: from digitised newspapers on the Trove website to letters, diaries, photographs, ephemera and even dried flowers.
The first infected ship to reach New South Wales was RMS (Royal Mail Steamer) Niagara, which sailed from Canada via New Zealand to arrive at Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station on 25 October 1918. Its mail cargo was fumigated before it was handed over to the postal service and its passengers were quarantined for seven days. Rather than arriving by sea, the flu entered Sydney via a soldier travelling from Melbourne by train.
On 25 January 1919, Sydney residents opened the Sydney Morning Herald to the alarming headline that a suspected case of the deadly influenza virus was within their city. The infected soldier had been taken to Randwick Military Hospital and the staff who treated him soon became ill.
As the pandemic hit Sydney, the government struggled to contain panic and confusion while it tried to deal with the most serious public health issue it had encountered. On 28 January, to stem the spread of infection, it ordered the closure of all schools, pubs, racecourses, theatres, churches and libraries in the Sydney area, extending the restrictions to Albury two weeks later. In March, the government made the unprecedented decision to cancel the Royal Easter Show. A drawback of these precautionary measures, however, was to increase public hysteria and the spreading of false information.