Typhoid terrorised the nation

Epidemics of infectious diseases came and went in early Australian history – smallpox, measles, the plague, Asiatic and Spanish flu – but typhoid was considered endemic. Outbreaks in the goldfields were inevitable, with overcrowding, no sanitation, a limited water supply and co-existing gold fever.

It tended to occur in healthy young men and showed no respect for position or wealth. The main difference was the rich were more likely to end up with a gravestone in a cemetery, rather than buried on the goldfields, with no markers or records.

Those gravestones often gave cause-of-death as fever, although typhoid had many names, including gastric fever, enteric fever, abdominal typhus, slow fever, nervous fever, and pythogenic fever.

In memory of John Scott, manager of the Great Western Undaunted Gold mining company who died at Hill End of typhoid fever April 5 1874. He is buried in the historical cemetery at Tambaroora near Hill End, NSW. Image: Sharyn Moodie

John Scott, mining manager of the Great Western Undaunted Company’s claim near Hill End, central New South Wales, was lucky enough to be buried and commemorated in 1874.

Mr Scott, of Cornish heritage, was…

“…received into the hospital in a very low and delirious state on Thursday, and after lingering until Sunday, he also succumbed to the disease.

EVening news, April 10

The newspaper also says Mr Scott was buried on Sunday, which must have been the same day he died given the publication date of the paper.

Two decades later, on the other side of Australia, the disease peaked over the 1890s and 1900s.

The Western Australia gold fields boasted the “largest episode of epidemic typhoid in Australia’s history, with an official death toll of 2000 but a much larger true number. An estimated ten times more people suffered from the disease but recovered.  

A gradual decline in cases saw a return to ‘regular levels’ by 1910.

The mining town of Coolgardie felt the impact, which is still evident in its cemetery today, both on the welcoming sign and the epithaths within.

Mining spectator Colin Gibson was one of those lucky enough to get treatment at hospital, although not much hope was held for his survival.  

The 27-year old was in Coolgardie Hospital when a sentence in the Western Mail newspaper stated his case rather bluntly.

In a paragraph describing the excellent new tank at the hospital were inserted these nine words

”Colin Gibson’s condition is now considered almost hopeless.

western mail

Indeed his case was hopeless, given that the vagaries of distance and the publication process meant he had died seven days earlier.

Colin GIbson, Coolgardie cemetery. Image: Sharyn Moodie

Tambaroora, NSW
Coolgardie, WA


Evening News, Friday 10 April 1874 – Page 2

Western Australian Museum: Typhoid Fever, a Raging Epidemic, viewed at http://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/wa-goldfields/dangerous-life/typhoid-fever-raging-epidemic

Western Mail,  Friday 17 December 1897 p 24

Published by Sharyn Moodie

Travelling around Australia for work, I've found so many amazing headstones. But what is more amazing is the stories behind some of these deaths, and the way newspapers of the day reported them.

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