NSLHD News May 22

royal north shore during an earlier pandemic 1919 The Royal North Shore

Hospital of Sydney finds itself at the front-line of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. These are challenging times for the staff, who are all making an extraordinary contribution. But this is not the first pandemic that this hospital has had to face. In 1919 Royal North Shore Hospital was emerging from the Great War. These years had been tough. Most of the medical staff took leave of absence to serve overseas; many of the qualified nursing staff and masseuses (forerunners of the physiotherapists) resigned to play their part in the war effort. Just as the hospital looked towards recovery, the ‘Spanish flu’ crept across the world, and RNSH was not immune from its devastating effects. When a soldier returning to Sydney from Melbourne on 24 January 1919 became ill with the flu the local authorities were aware of the consequences. The Department of Health immediately closed down all places where crowds could congregate, such as schools, universities, theatres, libraries and by the end of January, all citizens were required by law to wear masks. On 28 March 1919, a representative from the Department of Health rang the Chairman of the North Shore Hospital Board. The request was for the immediate release of at least 65 beds (the total hospital capacity at the time was 120) to receive influenza patients. Not only did the Chairman and Matron, achieve this almost impossible task,

A group of nurses duing the pandemic in 1919

but he drew up plans for a wooden structure to house the nurses, who would remain in isolation while nursing these patients. Local builders constructed the facility within a few days. Between 28 March and 31 July 1919, the hospital admitted a total of 534 patients (often transferred to the rehabilitation service set up at the Crow’s Nest Public School, which was otherwise empty during the pandemic, with the closure of all schools). On 4 June 1919, with the numbers of sick patients having fallen significantly, the chief resident medical officer hoped that the special isolation wards could close. Alas, a distinct recrudescence occurred, and a further 28 cases presented within a few days. Overall, 74 patients died. Thirty-four nurses attended to the sick, and although 20 nurses developed symptoms, there were no deaths. One Sydney University medical student, John Nicholson, contracted the disease while working at one of the community Influenza

depots and died at RNSH on 12 May. He was 22 years old. The only staff member to die was Dr John Basil St. Vincent Welch (1881-1919), an Honorary Surgeon. His is a particularly tragic story. Dr Welch graduated from the University of Sydney MB ChM in 1906 and took up his appointment at RNSH. He was one of the first to enlist for service in WWI. Lieutenant Colonel Welch commanded a unit that landed at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. Although wounded, he survived and subsequently served in Egypt and at the Somme, when he received a Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry. Welch returned to his surgical position at RNSH in early 1919 but died of pneumonic influenza at RNSH on 21 May 1919. With the end of the pandemic of 1919, the hospital emerged from the turmoil and soon returned to ‘normal’ functioning. Catherine Storey OAM MB BS MSc FRACP Honorary Archivist RNSH



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