Nurses with children outside the Royal Exhibition Building during the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic.
Source: Museum Victoria
With winter fast approaching and international concern about swine flu, influenza is back on the agenda. A little known fact about the flu is that 90 years ago, the Royal Exhibition Building played a prominent role in Melbourne’s response to ‘the mother of all pandemics’.
The 1918-1919 Spanish flu pandemic infected millions of people worldwide. It was characterised by high infectivity and unusually high mortality in young people. The virus arrived in Australia in late 1918, and while it seems Australia experienced a milder strain than Europe and the Americas, our hospitals rapidly reached capacity. The emergency prompted the use of the Royal Exhibition Building as a hospital between February and August 1919. “More and more people were getting sick and there was just nowhere to put them,” notes Senior Curator of Public Life and Institutions, Dr Charlotte Smith.
Charlotte curates the Royal Exhibition Building collection, some 5,200 objects and 6,045 archives preserved from the building’s colourful history. There are just two objects in the collection used during the flu era: a pair of medical scissors that were found beneath the floorboards and a hospital stretcher. Photographs from 1919 show the five hundred hospital beds that were set up inside the building. Charlotte notes that “4,046 people were treated in six months, and 392 died. This was a fairly good survival rate compared to other institutions at the time.”
Around 12,500 Australians died during the pandemic. The loss experienced by a community recovering from the horrors of WWI is unimaginable. However, for the newly-founded Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL), it provided a huge burst of public support and recognition which facilitated CSL’s development, expansion, and success.
CSL was established during WWI to respond to Australia’s need for vaccines, serums and anti-toxins, all of which were imported. The war limited the availability of manufactured medicines and facilities for shipping them. Australia was feeling its isolation acutely; clearly, independent production was vital to ensure public health needs could be met.
Almost immediately after opening in 1918, CSL poured all its efforts into battling the coming onslaught of Spanish flu. By March 1919, CSL had packed and produced three million doses of flu vaccine. While accounts of its efficacy suggest that it did somehow reduce mortality, the vaccine was actually derived from a mix of bacterial strains, reflecting the mistaken belief that influenza was caused by a bacterium.
Museum Victoria acquired the CSL collection in 2004, including medicines and equipment from the early years. A vial of the original 1919 vaccine can be seen in The Melbourne Story.