In 1903 tuberculosis was rife in Australia, as it was in much of the world. The Queen Victoria Sanatorium was established at a remote area near Wentworth Falls, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The property on Burragarong Road (now Tablelands Road) had been owned by businessman Sir Kelso King, and the old homestead with its bullnosed veranda remained at the centre of the extensive institution.
A journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald visited soon after the opening;
It would be difficult to imagine any public institution more scrupulously clean or in more perfect order than this sanatorium. As to precautions in the first place, patients are forbidden to expectorate anywhere but in the pocket flasks provided for the purpose. Should this rule be broken and a patient seen expectorating about the grounds he is liable to instant dismissal.
Every day the contents of the flasks plus the first rinsing water was packed in sawdust and burned in a small crematorium in the grounds. There was also liberal use of Jeyes Fluid, carbolic soap and formalin.
The fresh air of the mountains was considered therapeutic. For this reason the wards and individual chalets were designed to be open to the elements.
The matron, Miss Mulholland, told the journalist that in wet weather the nurses often had to wear rubber boots while doing their rounds. Fires were rarely lit, and even then the patients were not allowed to sit near them. Those well enough were sent off on long walks, armed with their trusty sputum flasks.
By now the man from the Herald was beginning to feel horrified by the whole regime of treatment; ‘In winter, I suppose, warm or tepid water is allowed for bathing?’ I asked. ‘Oh, no’ replied the matron cheerfully. ‘Our patients take cold baths only, and these every morning.’
One consequence of having sanatoriums (The Queen Victoria was one of two) located at Wentworth Falls was that the town did not develop as quickly as neighbouring Katoomba and Leura. People were fearful of contracting tuberculosis. In 1912 The Sydney Morning Herald published an article on real estate in the Mountains. It reported a move by locals to build a railway platform between Lawson and Wentworth Falls for the exclusive use of T.B. patients, and even to change the name of Wentworth Falls station.
NOT JUST A HOSPITAL
Every effort was made to make annual festivals and feast days memorable, and to lessen the anguish of being away from family and friends for protracted periods. Tuberculosis was then very difficult to cure. It was not uncommon for patients to be at the Queen Victoria for a year or two. Christmases were celebrated with games, concerts, euchre competitions and traditional turkey and plum pudding dinners.
A moving Anzac Day service was held in 1917. Not surprisingly, there were a number of returned men in the sanatorium at the time.
Because of its isolated location surrounded by bushland, the sanatorium was susceptible to the threat of fires. On more than one occasion patients had to join the battle to save it. The long, unsealed road was another problem, especially in winter. At one point it became impassable. Incoming passengers could not find cab drivers willing to drive them from the Wentworth Falls station.
Unfortunately the work of the sanatoriums was undermined by snake oil salesmen offering quack cures.
In 1933 the following advertisement appeared in The Sun;
SANATORIUM PATIENT MAKES REMARKABLE RECOVERY
EXTRACT OF LETTERS FROM A PATIENT WHO WAS IN QUEEN VICTORIA SANATORIUM, WENTWORTH FALLS
‘I had been ill for seven years with T.B. in the lungs and hips. I spent three years at the Sanatorium, hemorrhaging and steadily becoming worse, until the Superintendent told my people the kidney was affected, and it was nearing the end. My sister, who is a nurse took me home to die. It was then I commenced using ‘Membrosus’. The improvement was astounding. Within a few days the cough had eased. Within two months the abscess in the hip burst, giving wonderful relief. It gradually healed and I was able to get about on crutches. The cough disappeared and I gained strength until eventually my doctors said all trace of T.B. was out of my system and within two years after being given up as dying I opened a small business.’
During the Second world war there were severe staff shortages at sanatoriums and The Queen Victoria was no exception. The cook left and with sixty patients and twelve staff members, two of the nurses had to take over in the kitchens. Some of the ambulatory patients helped out with the care of those still at the bed-rest stage.
THE SANATORIUM TODAY
There is a misapprehension that the institution was a mental asylum. It attracts vandals and ‘ghost’ hunters, hence the tight security. It looks a bit like an internment camp.
Baby boomers reading this might remember their parents dutifully heading off for their annual TB chest x-rays in the 1950s and early 60s. There was a best selling book at the time by American Betty McDonald called The Plague and I. It was on our bookshelf and at the age of about ten I read with horrified fascination.
Those x-rays certainly paid dividends, as the disease has been almost eliminated in Australia. Nevertheless it is believed that a third of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis.
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