Combating Spanish Flu in Australia
Prevention and Precautions from the Conventional to the Curious
Combating Spanish flu in Australia was a massive challenge for government authorities, the medical profession and the population at large. There was a steady stream of precautionary advice on what to do to avoid getting sick and what to do if you did.
Some advice was conventional medical advice, other advice sometimes bordered on the curious or bizarre. This is a collection of advice and treatments made available to the public during the epidemic. But first some background.
Spanish flu was not Spanish
The name Spanish flu came about because Spain was the first country to report a “mysterious malady” spreading throughout the population, even striking down the monarch, King Alfonso XIII. Spain was a neutral country during WW1 with no enforced media censorship like countries involved in the confrontation. News of a disease spreading through battle grounds affecting fighting strength was the last thing both the Allies and Germany wanted or needed. It was military hush hush.
In Australia, Spanish flu was referred to as Pneumonic Influenza. On 17 October 1918, influenza or any febrile toxic septicaemic condition similar to influenza, including pneumonic influenza was declared a quarantinable disease by government proclamation. It was added to the list of other quarantinable diseases in Australia including, small pox, plague, cholera, yellow fever, typhus fever and leprosy.
What was Spanish flu or Pneumonic Influenza?
Dr. Hurley, the Government Bacteriologist at the time said the influenza bacillus causing the Spanish flu epidemic produced three types or phases of the disease.
“The first phase may be influenza in its true form—the leaden head, aching limbs, and cold on the chest. The second phase is when the patient becomes pneumonic, frequently dying from pneumonia as we all understand it; the third, and most deadly phase, is when the pneumonia becomes septic ; the whole system becomes blood poisoned, the patient delirious, and death usually comes in a few hours. In the latter phase the body at once turns black, and has to be buried at once. Twenty-four hours is the maximum time allowed between death and burial but long before that the body has to be encased.” (Yass Courier, 3 Feb 1919, p2)
A National Approach for Combating Spanish Flu – United in Theory, Divided in Practice
A National Influenza Planning Conference held in Melbourne on 26-27 November 1918 attended by State Health Ministers, Director-Generals of Health Departments, British Medical Association representatives and Commonwealth officials presented a united front at the conclusion of the meeting.
The group agreed that the Commonwealth government would take responsibility for proclaiming which States were infected as well as organising maritime and land quarantine. The States would be responsible for activating emergency hospitals, vaccination depots, ambulance services, medical staff and public awareness measures. They were also required to inform the Commonwealth if an outbreak occurred in their State so the Commonwealth could act and declare the State infected. A united ‘war’ footing until Victoria delayed declaring it was an infected State in January 1919 throwing the ‘baby’ federation into crisis.
At the local level Municipal councils had a key role in implementing the regulations covering isolation, notification, and medical care. They were also asked to prepare and equip local drill halls, man emergency hospitals in the event of an outbreak and set up inoculation stations where serum would be provided for free and inoculations free to the public.
Richmond council, in Victoria, declared somewhat contrarily that this responsibility was too burdensome and the responsibility should be with the State Health Department. Another division that had potential to jeopardise the delivery and management of essential health services to the local community.
Standard Medical Advice for Combating Spanish Flu
Influenza had no sovereign remedy or magic bullet and different doctors recommended different treatments. But there was agreement on one thing. Treating the disease lightly came with deadly complications.
Doctors usually told patients to avoid exertion, go to bed, induce perspiration with hot drinks and take ammoniated tincture of quinine.
Doctors Agree on Local Treatment Prescriptions for Combating Influenza at a Medical Conference
Local medical officers agreed to the following prescriptions at a Broken Hill area conference for combating and treating Spanish flu or pneumonic influenza :-
No. l.-Citrate Potassium, – 15 grains; spirits of nitrous ether, 15 minims; liquor of acetate of ammonium; 30 minims; sacc ust, quantity sufficient ; chenol (?) water to 1/2 ounce. Dose: 11/2 ounce every four hours; child,- half teaspoonful (for four years), two teaspoonfuls (for 12 years).
No. 2.-Ipecacuanha wine, 15 minims: syrup of tolu, 30 minims; liquor of acetate of ammonium, 30 minims; senega and ammonia mixture (M.H.P.) to half drachm. Dose: As No. 1.
No. 3.-Tincture of digitalis, 71/2 minims;- tincture of nux vomica, 71/2 minims ; syrup of ginger, 30 minims, chenol (?) water to half ounce. Dose: As above.
No. 1 prescription will be dispensed at any local chemist’s on application. No. 2 and 3 prescriptions must, however, be obtained from a medical practitioner. (Barrier Miner, 5 Feb 1919, p1)
A Duty to Self-isolate to Combat the Spread of Spanish Flu
Dr Cumpsten, the Director of Quarantine advised people they had a duty to self-isolate at the first sign of symptoms and stay isolated for the entire period of sickness and for seven days afterwards. He also advised carers to sterilise all utensils used by a patient in boiling water. Bed confinement was recommended due to the pneumonic complication which could be accompanied with chronic heart weakness. (Bathurst Times, 24 Oct 1918, p4)
Government Precautionary and Preventative Steps for Combating Spanish Flu
State Governments closed borders, schools, churches, libraries, theatres, music halls, restaurants, cafes and banned race meetings as part of their prevention strategy. Inoculations depots sprung up in local council areas. Mask wearing, brushed off at first, became compulsory in public places as the disease became more virulent and widespread.
Victorian authorities, particularly the Director of Public Health Dr Robertson, came under fire for not taking the influenza crisis seriously. (Sydney Sun, 7 February 1919, p6) Dr Robertson’s, view that the rise in cases at a particular point in the crisis was due largely to the weather didn’t help his case. (Age, 10 Feb 1919, p5) Despite recommendations to do so pubs were not closed down in Victoria but social distancing measures applied.
The Chairman of the Adelaide Board of Health, Dr. Ramsey Smith said:
“ What I would like to see the people do is to take some simple precautions. People should not be talking, coughing and sneezing in each other’s faces, or shaking hands or kissing. It may be possible to get each person to say to his neighbour, ‘Hands off, and don’t come within three feet of me’.”
The NSW Department of Public Health issued a pamphlet outlining what to do in the absence of medical attention.
The Victorian Board of Health provided the worried public with information about pneumonic influenza including symptoms, prevention and legal obligations. This appeared on 27 February 1919.
The onset is generally sudden, beginning with a chill or a shivering fit and high fever. Headache and backache ensue, followed by a general aching of the body, and extreme weakness. Sometimes the disease begins with reddening and running of the eyes, coughing, sneezing and sore throat.
Occasionally the attack is ushered in by-
(a) Vomiting and diarrhoea, accompanied by several abdominal pains, or
(b) A sudden faint
(c) An epileptifome fit ; or
(d) Symptoms of acute mania; or
(e) Delirium tremens.
(1) Isolation of patients and contacts.
(2) Disinfection of discharges from mouth and nose of patients and contacts.
(3) Disinfection of nose and mouth cavities by douches, mouth washes, sprays and inhalations.
(4) Attendants on patients and contacts should wear a gauze mask or suitable respirator.
(5) Avoid crowds; be in the open air as much as possible. Allow sunshine and air to freely enter all living, sleeping, and working rooms. Avoid fatigue, and beware of the cougher and sneezer.
(1) Evidence from South Africa shows that the special vaccine prevents serious complications, if not the disease itself. This vaccine is supplied by the Health Department to Councils, to which application should be made for inoculation.
DISINFECTION OF NOSE AND MOUTH:
Douche-A flat teaspoonful of salt, baking soda, and boric acid dissolved in a quart of warm water.
Sprays-Permanganate of potash, 1 in 1500, or 2 p.c. solution of hydrogen peroxide. These may also be used as mouth washes.
Inhalant-Eucalyptus oil,7 parts; terebene, 2 parts; and menthol, 1 part.
(1) Every householder shall immediately send a report, in writing to the Council of every case of influenza, or any illness resembling influenza, which occurs in the house, and each report shall include the name, age, and sex of the patient, and the exact location of the house.
(2) Every person who suffers from symptoms of influenza shall immediately inform the occupier of the house wherein he resides of his condition.
(3) Every person, who has been in contact with a case of influenza, shall immediately send a report to the Council, and such report shall include such person’s name and address.
(4) No contact and no person suffering from symptoms of influenza shall enter any public building or place where persons are congregated.
(5) Any person who fails to comply with the foregoing regulation, or is guilty of any neglect or disobedience thereof, is liable to a penalty of £20.”
(Yarragon, Trafalgar and Moe Settlement News, 27 Feb 1919, p3)
After Victorian authorities ‘played dumb’ about the prevalence of pneumonic influenza cases in their State, a wall quickly went up around Victoria. Why Victoria did this is not a mystery but economics. Victoria declaring itself infected first, meant the border with NSW would close and traffic blocked. Waiting for NSW to declare meant the two states would be considered one entity and traffic between them could continue. After Victoria’s inaction each state started introducing their own border controls and arrangements for managing and containing outbreaks.
NSW shut its border with Victoria and then South Australia. Queensland closed its border with NSW and Western Australia closed its border with South Australia. Tensions were so high that Western Australia impounded the transcontinental train. Cooperative federalism collapsed and eventually the Commonwealth temporarily withdrew from the November agreement on 11 February 1919
NSW didn’t want anyone leaving Victoria without a permit issued by the Commonwealth Government. Medical patrols set up at Albury and Tocumwal temperature checked and examined all passengers arriving from Victoria. Any hint of sickness meant the journey’s end and removal to Albury hospital. (Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 28 Jan 1919, p4)
Initially people stranded at the Victorian border made do with sleeping under trees by the Murray river. Those desperate enough tried swimming over to NSW but usually failed because they were poor swimmers or were stopped by quarantine police.
Inoculation depots were set up in the cities and regions throughout the country. In 1919 inoculation wasn’t for the fainthearted. The Ballarat Star provides a grisly description of the inoculation process in the Victorian regional town of Ballarat in February 1919 – enough to put anyone off having the procedure. Males and females divided into two queues waited nervously for the doctor.
“Dr Donnelly, in a long white gown, and wearing a mask, stands in a small enclosure at the northern end of the hall and the ‘subjects’ are permitted, a dozen at a time, to come forward with arm bared to the shoulder. They walk as though proceeding down an aisle, the females on the left, and the males on the right of the Doctor’s enclosure.
Dr Donnelly with a dish of boiling water, and a jar of vaccine on a table before him, leans forward as each arm is presented, and with hypodermic syringe in hand makes the inoculation by quickly forcing the needle about an inch upwards well under the skin, and then by pressure on the syringe making the injection.
The subject, as he or she is operated on, passes on, the needle of the hypodermic syringe is quickly dipped into the boiling water, fresh serum is drawn into it, and the next inoculation is made.
Brandy and ‘smelling’ salts kept handy in case of fainting.” (The Ballarat Star, 3 Feb 1919)
By April 5 1919, the NSW Premier, Mr Holman reported that about 750,000 people had been inoculated in NSW and that sufficient vaccine remained to inoculate the remaining 1,000,000 residents. (The Ballarat Star, 5 April 1919, p1)
There were arguments for and against mask wearing with authorities doubting their efficiency at first. In Penrith, it became compulsory for everyone in the County of Cumberland to wear a mask anywhere in public on 1 February 1919. (Nepean Times,1 Feb 1919, p3). By 4 February 1919 everyone in Sydney was wearing a mask. (Tweed Daily, 4 Feb 1919, p3)
A proclamation making mask wearing compulsory was issued by the NSW Government and printed in the Sydney Morning Herald on 3 February 1919. Pleading to all NSW people to act responsibly and not put their ‘independence’ above the lives of others it began, “A danger greater than the war faces the state of NSW and threatens the lives of all.” (SMH, 3 Feb 1919)
Victorian authorities were more lenient, recognising the value of masks for indoor gatherings but not making them compulsory in early February 1919. (Sydney Sun, Friday 7 Feb 1919, p6). It wasn’t long and shop assistants were wearing masks in Melbourne and the aroma of camphor and eucalyptus met you as you walked into stores. Soon you couldn’t board public transport unless you were wearing a mask in Melbourne.
The NSW Board of Health issued the following advice on the use of respirators (masks) to prevent the spread of pneumonic influenza:
An effective respirator consists of four layers of surgical gauze or three layers of butter cloth which should be worn on a light wire frame fitting closely over the mouth and nose. The gauze on the respirator should be changed as often as it becomes soiled— say once daily. No disinfectant need be applied to the gauze. The old gauze should be burnt.
The advice of the Department of Health to all citizens is to wear a gauze respirator as soon as influenza is reported to have broken out in Sydney, while riding on all trains, trains, or, other vehicles, upon steamers, when occupying rooms, offices or other enclosed spaces which are also occupied by any other persons; in any crowded street, or if walking or standing In conversation with other persons. In the open air it is believed that there Is safety at a distance of six feet or over from the mouth of any person.
It is advised further that the following simple rules, should be observed: Keep away from the cougher, spitter, or sneezer who does not use a mask or handkerchief. Keep out of crowds. Keep In the fresh air and sun light as much as possible. Keep out of doors if possible, or in a well-ventilated room. Be temperate in eating, and avoid alcohol. Wash your hands and face immediately upon reaching your home. Change your clothes before mingling with the rest of your family. Exercise short of fatigue should be taken regularly. Keep the mouth and teeth clean. (Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 1 Feb 1919, p11)
Making a Mask – A Red Cross Pattern
The Red Cross suggested cutting muslin into 10 inch lengths, folding over into four, and tying round the head with two pieces of tape. A piece of millinery wire could be added to the top edge, long enough to fit over the nose and behind the ears like a pair of glasses. Further instructions included:
“The muslin should be strongly tacked together, so as not to present the appearance of a piece of rag. Unless the raw edges are carefully turned in, they will soon fray, and the mask will be unfit for use.
As soon as you come into the house from your daily tasks, remove your mask and wash your face and hands thoroughly. Then boil the mask ready for the next day. It is just as well to have two or three going, in case there is any trouble in the drying. Also, if you have the. slightest idea that anyone in the house has contracted the disease, be sure to wear the mask while attending to them, prior to sending for the doctor.
The Red Cross Society will also supply, on application, the pattern of an excellent mask, made of muslin, which is specially suitable for persons nursing infected cases. Such masks completely cover the head and face, just leaving the eyes exposed, and are light and comfortable to wear.” (Sydney Mail, 5 Feb 1919, pp 23-24)
In NSW the Health Department prepared S.O.S. cards for residences to put in a window if they fell ill and needed medical assistance or food. It was an idea borrowed from New Zealand. Streets were patrolled morning and night checking for residents who required help.
The card read:
“S.O.S. If you want any attention from the doctor, nurse, or helper, put this card on the window bar, showing the S.O.S. If you want food only put the back of the card to the window. A depot has been established in this district for the purpose of rendering any assistance required. If you need assistance, do not ring up if you can send a messenger. Communicate only with the officer-in-charge of the district.
The streets will be patrolled each morning and afternoon to find out the homes in which assistance or medical attention is needed. The address and the ‘phone number of the depot follow.” (Sydney Sun 27 Jan 1919, p5)
In Victoria it was mainly left to community locals to rise to the occasion and help fellow residents. In Port Melbourne and nearby suburbs residents came up with the idea of tying a white cloth to a door, gate or window to show they were in need of help. People would then know that the household needed food or medical assistance. (The Herald, 30 April 1919. Cited in a Victorian Parliamentary Library & Information Service Research Paper)
There were many ‘cures’ recommended and advertised throughout the epidemic. Many sounded very ‘dodgy’ and were probably worse than the disease. Nevertheless people were frightened and looked at anything from ‘Bonox‘ to ‘Borax’ to help avoid or cure the deadly infection.
“It is at generally known that an excellent cough remedy can be quickly, easily and cheaply made at home in a few minutes by dissolving half a pound of sugar in half a pint of boiling water and then stirring in two ounces of Bitrate of Tar, which can be easily obtained of any chemist at slight cost. Bitrate of Tar Cough Syrup is as pleasant to take as it is effective, and is therefore especially suitable for children. The dose for adults is one to two teaspoonfuls every hour or two until the cough is cured. Children should take half as much. Thousands of people used this war time syrup last winter with beneficial results, and every mother is strongly advised to keep a bottle of Bitrate of Tar Cough Syrup at hand. It is true that it is a simple home-made remedy, but it has proved most successful in relieving stubborn coughs and colds.” (Western Argus, Tuesday 1 October 1918, p20)
Dr. Sharp of Sydney spruiked the benefits of alcohol as a preventive against Spanish flu because alcohol was a powerful antiseptic, a refrigerant, astringent, and anhidrotic. He believed:
“an ounce and a half of proper spirit (brand not specified) taken in teaspoon doses over 24 hours, first gargled, then swallowed, and followed by a drink of water, is a very effective means of avoiding contagion.” (Graphic of Australia, 31 Dec 1918, p5)
Wilson’s Pino-Metho Inhalant
“Medical men state that the best means of attacking the influenza germ is by inhalants breathed through the air passages. Wilson’s Pino-Mentho Inhalant Is a combination of the most active germicides known to science. Its vapor inhaled through the nostrils is certain death to all invading germs. Wilson’s Pino-Mentho Inhalant is an ideal preventive. It Is easily carried in the pocket or handbag. A few drops of it inhaled from the handkerchief at intervals throughout the day will prove an absolute protection against the enemy at our door. Wilson’s Pino-Mentho Inhalant is sold by all Chemists at 1/6 per bottle, or direct from ALEX WILSON & CO.. LTD., MALCOLM LANE, SYDNEY.” (Newcastle Sun, 2 Jan 1919, p1)
A Goose Quill of Camphor
A Mr. H. W. Chapman, of Armidale, shared a unique way of preventing the influenza germ entering the system through the mouth and nose. The measure which proved effective during the smallpox epidemic was recommended by his French master in Northamptonshire. Hundreds of boys at his school used the same method, and not one of them contracted smallpox.
The method involved filling a goose quill about 4 inches long with powdered camphor with a piece of absorbent wool in each end to keep the camphor in place.
“The quill is then placed in the mouth at intervals, and the camphor will be found to percolate through the wool and become inhaled. The preventive seams a very simple one, but Mr. Chapman says that not one of the several hundred boys in that particular school contracted smallpox and all resorted to this remedy. No doubt the same good effect would result in the ease of the present influenza outbreak, as camphor is a strong germicide.” (Armidale Express and New England General Advertiser, 31 Jan 1919, p6)
The Kodak Company opened an inhalatorium to protect its workers in 1919. Twenty people at a time could be treated – ten on each side of the machine. Staff put their faces in an oval hole and breathed in the steam carrying sulphate of zinc solution to ‘disinfect’ their throats and air passages. They received the treatment twice a day for four minutes at a time. “There is a noticeable feeling of exhilaration after a “dose,” and the whole face benefits from the vapor bath.” (Richmond Guardian, 22 Feb 1919, p2)
The expert Medical Advisory Committee appointed by the Victorian state government advised against using formaldehyde in the inhalatoriums recommending instead an atomised zinc-sulphate.
“Inhaling gases like formaldehyde, should not be used, as they unfavorably affect the mucous membranes of throat, nose and eyes. Care should be taken to avoid crowding at an Inhalatorium, and to avoid chilling.” (Herald, 14 Feb 1919, p8)
Inhalatoriums opened up around the country. In Victoria, the Port Melbourne, Richmond, and Ballarat municipal councils made them available for public use. The Richmond Inhalatorium was well attended with 5,360 people going through. (Richmond Guardian, 13 Sept 1919, p2)
In April 1919, after the NSW Government proclaimed restrictions on travel within the state, people couldn’t travel by train beyond Mount Victoria to the west, Picton to the south, Gosford to the North and Wollongong on the South Coast unless they had been inoculated and been through an inhalatorium in the past 24 hours. The same applied to those travelling by steamer. (Ballarat Star, Sat 5 April 1919, p1)
Making your own Inhalatorium with Creosote and Eucalyptus
Ballarat’s Dr Donnelly (of inoculation fame above) showed people how to make their own private halatorium to use in conjunction with inoculation and properly worn masks.
“Roll a piece of cotton wool, the size of a plum into a ball, and cover with gauze; then sprinkle with a mixture of equal parts creosote oil and Australian eucalyptus oil, and inhale at leisure. This can be carried in the pocket of an adult or tied around the necks of children.” (The Ballarat Star, 3 Feb 1919)
Spirit of Turps
Gosford chemist Mr. Eggins advised people to:
Take every, other morning, for an adult, 10 drops of pure rectified spirits of turps in a spoonful of fresh milk (not common turps). The spirits of turps is a powerful germ destroyer, and absolutely safe to take, and milk is an absorbent. Germs cannot thrive or live , if turpentine is present in the system. This advice is genuine, and has been used by myself and fondly for the past I8 years as a preventive against all complaints, such as epidemics. I have recommended same to hundreds of others, who can speak in glowing terms of its efficacy. Children can take it as follows : One drop for every two years of age of the child. It is also advisable to use a mouth wash in conjunction by putting 5 or 8 grains of permanganate of potash to half pint of water, and wash the mouth, out and gargle the throat night and morning while epidemic is present. (Richmond River Express and Casino Kyogle Advertiser, 4 Feb 1919, p4)
Purging – A ‘Nature Cure’ for Influenza
First take a Turkish bath, enema, and hot lemon drink to throw poison out of the system by channels of exertion.
Feed lightly till tongue is clean; keep air fresh and warm. Chamomile tea, linseed, liquorice and glycerine, and black currant drinks all soothe and promote perspiration. (Wyalong Advocate and Mining, Agricultural and Pastoral Gazette, 15 Feb 1918, p2)
A ‘Common-sense’ Approach from Generous Bowel Movement to Sweetbreads
There is no specific cure for influenza, and one attack does not protect a person from a subsequent one; on the contrary, it has a tendency to make him still more liable. The treatment must be based upon common-sense principles, and this does not mean deluging the patient with various mixtures in the hope that some of them may do him good. To begin with, however, it is well to procure a generous movement, of the bowels and three grains of calomel is an effective dose for the average adult.
In order to favour the elimination of the poisons from the constitution the tissues should be also supplied with plenty of fluid. Plain water, lemon-water, or barley water can be recommended for the purpose.
In the early stages of the ailment the ammoniated tincture of quinine is a very popular remedy. One dram of this preparation, together with an equal quantity of syrup of orange peel, may be taken in water every four hours.
Hot applications are best for the relief of pain, and it is better to reply upon perfect quiet and a darkened room for treatment of the headache.
For the sore throat a simple gargle is usually sufficient, such as a weak solution of Condy’s fluid or this may be supplemented by painting the tonsils and back of the throat with glycerine of borax or carbolised glycerine.
When the digestive system is affected, it is perfectly useless trying to ‘feed the patient up’ whilst any acute symptoms are present. Water may be given freely, and as soon as the vomiting is over a little peptonised milk may be taken at first, and ordinary milk afterwards.
Nourishment should be given in small quantities at a time, and frequently repeated, and the dietary ladder should be ascended with extreme caution. Whilst the temperature is above normal a milk diet must be strictly adhered to, and this should be preferably virolised.
Egg albumin water, prepared by whipping up the whites of three or four eggs, adding a pint of water which, has been boiled and allowed to cool, and flavouring with a little cinnamon, can be thoroughly recommended. Later on egg-flip may be given.
When the temperature is normal eggs and chicken, sweet-breads and fish may be gradually offered, and, finally roast joints. Rest, warmth, and quiet are the sovereign remedies for influenza, and the best preventives of secondary complications. The chief thing is to secure their early adoption.” (Ballarat Star, 1918, p8)
Rest, Hot Lemonade and Quinine
Fruiterers had never sold so many lemons as in this pandemic. They became so scarce that the Minister for Customs approved a 10% increase on the yearly quantity imported. (SMH 1 Mar 1919 p13)
The main principle is not to regard the disease as being light. Neglect on this point may lead to pneumonia. Exertion must be avoided, the patient must remain indoors, more advisedly, in bed, and perspiration should be induced as far as possible. Hot drinks. including hot lemonade, are also necessary. Ammoniated tincture of quinine is a splendid remedy if used only according to the directions given with it. Inhalations of eucalyptus should also be made. (Newcastle Sun, 11 Sept 1918, p6)
Bonnington’s Irish Moss
This medicine is still on chemist shelves today.
“If taken at commencement, the dangerous effects of influenza will be avoided.” (Daily Telegraph, 23 Nov 1918, p8)
Quinine and Oil of Cinnamon
In London there was a rush for quinine and oil of cinnamon. A Dr Reginald Jewesbury stated at an inquest that the combination is one of the best known preventatives. (Tweed Daily, 21 Sept 1918, p6)
Dress warmly was the advice given in the Bendigo Independent because “a stitch in time may save quinine”. (Bendigo Independent 27 Nov 1918 p7)
Sister E. Kenny, of the Military Hospital at Enoggera, Brisbane, who had considerable experience with the pneumonic-influenza epidemic at Sierra Leone on troopships, extolled the virtues of a daily inhalation of formalin to check to the spread of the disease. She recommended a teaspoonful of formalin added to two quarts of boiling water, and (with eyes closed) take four or five deep breaths of the steam. If a slight stinging sensation in the throat was not experienced, add a little more formalin.
The Director-General of Health (Dr. Paton) however warned that formalin should not be used by unskilled people.
Formalin, is all right in the hands of nurses or anyone else acquainted with its use. (Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Feb 1919, p8)
Touted as “A Prevention for the Spanish Flu”, Bonox was credited with building up bodily resistance because it “Turns into Rich Red Blood”. Such advertising today would have serious legal implications. However in 1919 it wasn’t a problem.
While influenza is still a common and deadly disease we have not again seen the world mortality figures of 50-100 million that accompanied the Spanish flu in 1918-19. The flu pandemic killed over 12,000 Australians and had disastrous consequences for young families. Thousands of children were left without one or two parents.
Medical advances in antibiotic development to treat secondary bacterial infections and the increasing sophistication of annual influenza vaccinations have helped control the deadly complications. Let us hope medical scientists can development a safe and effective vaccine for CoVid19 to help us overcome the current pandemic.