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[1]Tuberculosis and other diseases.

Because of its altitude, a fact often included in advertising material for early subdivisions, Beecroft was regarded as a safe clime for those who were unwell – a suburb that was higher than the miasma which was thought to bring disease to nineteenth century cities.[1] Of the early families following the establishment of the township the biographies of several families all show that they were motivated to come to the district for the health of family members. These included the Holcombe, Nixon, Pierce, Seale and Vernon families. Young Clarice Green, whose birthday party is commemorated by a photograph on page 254 of the published history, died before her next birthday in 1897 of typhoid. The family of one of the district’s most famous sons, L J Hooker, moved to Beecroft when his mother Ellen (Nellie) Hookin came to live with relatives in Copeland Road East because she was a single mother and about to die (in 1911) of tuberculosis.   

During the late 1870s in the colony of NSW, tuberculosis, then known as consumption, was a considerable health problem and was perhaps the single greatest cause of death in that period both within the colony and in Britain.[2] Tragically, young adults in the 20-30 age group were among the most vulnerable. In September 1877, the philanthropists John and Ann Goodlet began their work for consumptives in a leased property in Picton, NSW, and in September 1886 they expanded the charity with a new purpose-built facility at nearby Thirlmere.  These facilities were not hospitals, but a ‘Consumptive Home’ to which sufferers could go for care and shelter in a healthy country environment. They were more sanitaria than hospital except that, unlike their overseas equivalent, they were not for the wealthy who could pay often considerable sums, but for the poor who could not afford such amenities.[3] [ii] The Home at Picton was the only institution in the colony of NSW dedicated to those who suffered from this disease until St Joseph’s Hospital was opened in July 1886 in Parramatta.[4] These institutions remained the only ones specifically for the care of consumptives until April 1897 when Lady Hampden decided, as a way to mark Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, to raise funds in order to build a Queen Victoria Home for Consumptives.[5]

It was commonly and falsely believed that the healthy climate of the colonies would prevent, improve and even help cure the consumptive so many sufferers emigrated to Australia to what was considered a healthier climate. The treatment consisted of isolation, lots of fresh air, good food and mild exercise, all of which probably improved the general health and strength of a patient but were never a cure for the disease.

In 1870, Melbourne physician William Thomson produced what should have been regarded as compelling evidence that the cause, cure and progress of consumption had little to do with the climate and that the benefit of the colonial climate to sufferers was overstated.[6] His work was received with considerable hostility within the colonial medical establishment and was ignored as was his advice.

In March 1882, the German scientist Dr Robert Koch demonstrated that the cause of tuberculosis was the tubercule bacillus, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This led to high hopes for a cure for the disease. Later, in 1890, Koch claimed that ‘tuberculine’, a product of the tubercule grown in an artificial medium, had shown much promise in effecting such cures of consumption in its early stages.[7] The various Australian colonial governments sent envoys to Berlin to study these claims and the result of these studies was a cautious acceptance, with a significant number of caveats, that ‘the fluid is probably a valuable remedial agent’. [8] It did not, however, produce the breakthrough cure for the disease and the promotion of the sanatorium movement, as the most significant means of treatment, continued. People sought to move to what were considered healthier suburbs and those infected were treated in sanatoria with fresh air and good nutrition.

 

Material supplied by Rev Dr Paul Cooper

 

  [1] P H Curson Times of Crisis (Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1985) p 6

[2] J.B. Trivett, Tuberculosis in NSW. A statistical analysis of the Mortality from Tubercular Disease during the last thirty three years (Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer, 1909).  For works on the Colonial incidence see Robin Walker, ‘The struggle against pulmonary tuberculosis in Australia, 1788-1950’ , Australian Historical Studies 20:80, 439-461, htttp://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10314618308682938 [accessed  March 15, 2011]; A.J. Proust (ed) History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (Canberra: Brolga Press, 1991); F.B. Smith, Illness in Colonial Australia (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2011).

[3] Thomas Dormandy, The White Death, A History of Tuberculosis  (New York: New York University Press, 2000),  147-159  helpfully traces the nineteen century European movement of ‘rest and fresh air’ in the sanatoria movement and the English equivalent  is found in F.B. Smith, The Retreat of Tuberculosis 1850-1950 (London: Croom Helm, 1988), 97-135.

[4] A.J. Proust ‘Evolution of Treatment’ in A.J. Proust (ed) History of Tuberculosis in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea (Canberra: Brolga Press, 1991), 148-9.

[5] SMH, April 29, 1897.

[6] Thomson published the view in 1876, some 6 years before Koch expressed his germ theory, that consumption was spread by those whose 'breath ... expelled a specific disease causing micro-organism which could be inhaled'. FB Smith, Illness in Colonial Australia, 122-124.

[7] Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch 1843-1910, his life and contribution is summarised in Thomas M Daniel, Pioneers of Medicine and their Impact on Tuberculosis (New York: University of Rochester  Press, 2000), 62-97.

[8] Australasian Medical Gazette (Sydney, NSW), March 15, 1891.