This year marks the centenary of the pneumonic influenza pandemic, often referred to as Spanish Flu. In February 1919, Port Macquarie, like most regional towns and villages, began to prepare for a possible outbreak of pneumonic influenza.
A sub-committee comprising the Mayor, John Hill and Aldermen P. Hayward, D. Stewart and A. Denham was appointed to deal with an outbreak should it occur, with the Mayor asking Mr Orr, the town’s chemist, to order a dozen masks just in case.
The same month, an inoculation depot for local citizens commenced at the Town Hall under an arrangement with the Municipal Council. Dr Sproule treated 95 adults and children with the influenza antidote at the first session.
Pneumonic influenza reached Port Macquarie in late March, with the arrival of the steamer Macquarie. On 1st April, just prior to sailing, an ill seaman was seen by Dr Sproule, who deemed his illness suspicious and had the man moved to an isolation compound established at the showgrounds. Later that day and the following day, six locals who had visited the Macquarie were “seized with illness”. Some were moved to the isolation compound, whilst others were treated in their own homes under strict quarantine.
Nurse Tidboald, who was treating the patients at the showgrounds, also fell ill. On their return to Sydney, seven members of the Macquarie crew were found to have influenza, with the vessel quarantined at North Head.
A week after his diagnosis, the seaman, Charles Mattson, aged 31, succumbed to pneumonic flu. He was buried the same day at West Port Macquarie cemetery. Mattson was not a regular member of the Macquarie crew, and was filling in for an injured seaman. With no further cases diagnosed, Dr Sproule lifted the contact embargo, and isolation measures throughout the town were relaxed.
The following day, there was quite a scare when the Macquarie arrived back in town flying the yellow flag. The ill seaman, Thomas Jenkinson, was also deemed a suspicious case and isolated. However, two days later his condition had returned to normal. The quarantine imposed on the vessel and crew was lifted.
The remaining seven cases from the initial outbreak recovered fully. Feelings about the cause of the local outbreak were high, with Captain F. W. Merrett writing to the local newspaper: “…Certain unfair statements have come to my knowledge. My position as master of the steamer is on deck. I do not go near the forecastle and was quite unware that there was a sick man in it. When we lie here on Sundays it is customary for some of the townsmen to visit the men in the forecastle, and on the particular day referred to, they were unfortunate enough to become contacts with a man developing influenza. I surely cannot be held responsible for that …”
By early July, it was reported that the disease had “practically petered out” here. There was only one local death from pneumonic influenza recorded. Sydney and many other regional areas were not so fortunate.