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The pandemic to end all pandemics: influenza in 1919

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 7 September 2018

We are rapidly approaching the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of influenza that wreaked havoc in Australia in 1919.

 Six months before the end of the First World War a new and deadly form of influenza emerged and swept the world. Popularly referred to as Spanish Flu the disease probably affected between 25 and 35 percent of the world’s population and killed more than 40 million.

As pandemics stand the 1918-19 influenza outbreak was without doubt the deadliest and most destructive in recorded human history. In just a handful of months it swept around the world affecting communities with a virulence not seen before.


Australia managed to avoid the outbreak until early in 1919. On the morning of January 25th 1919 Sydney residents awoke to read in the newspaper of a suspected case of influenza in the city. A returned serviceman was placed in the Military Hospital. Within a couple of days three hospital staff who had looked after him developed influenza symptoms.

In late 1918, Australia experienced a stream of ships arriving with a history of influenza cases on the voyage. In the three months after October 1918 more than 320 people from these ships were placed in quarantine at the North Head Quarantine Station. Despite this the Commonwealth Government remained largely indifferent to the potential threat of a major influenza outbreak believing that isolation, distance, time and quarantine offered security.

All this changed as the death toll continued to mount in the Northern Hemisphere and influenza continued to spread around the world.

Nearby in New Zealand, influenza swept the country in November and December carrying away more than 8,000 people in only six weeks. By the latter part of 1919, however, at least 15,000 Australians had died from influenza and possibly 1.5 million had caught the disease.

The most striking feature of the outbreak and where it differed from previous influenza outbreaks is that it mainly targeted young healthy adults, particularly those aged between 25 and 39.

In parts of Australia the pandemic took a heavy toll. In Sydney, for example, approximately 27 percent of the population were aged between 25 and 39 in 1919 yet this age group contributed almost half the total flu deaths, For a country that had just witnessed the sacrifice of many of its young men during the war, this was a devastating blow.


Influenza would affect all aspects of Australian life. Marriages were torn apart and many children found themselves without a father or mother. Fear of infection also caused many to put off getting married.

There is no official data on the number of people who caught influenza in Australia in 1919 In Sydney it is quite likely that between 37 and 40 percent or 300,000 of all Sydneysiders caught flu in 1919.

Generally the medical profession were unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic. Little was known about viral infections and most believed that they were simply confronting a bacterial disease. Antibiotics were at least 30 years away and without any medical tools to confront influenza the medical profession was forced to rely on measures such as quarantine, isolation, sprays and disinfectants, masks, the banning of public meetings and simply telling people to go to bed for at least four days.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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