In 1919 Dr Victor Ratten was Surgeon Superintendent of the Hobart General Hospital. At the time he was fighting accusations that the medical certificate he had obtained in Chicago ten years earlier was fraudulent.
He was a man of supreme self-confidence, never allowing the charges to distract him from his work. This was about to prove providential for the general public (the validity of his diploma is another story).
On Wednesday, August 13 1919, a male presented in the hospital’s outpatients’ department and was attended by Dr Ratten, who recognized the symptoms of pneumonic influenza. Until this point Tasmania had remained free of the disease commonly known as Spanish Flu. Meanwhile, it had spread around the world, and on mainland Australia it had already been raging for months. The barrier of the Bass Strait and the closing of all ports except Hobart and Launceston had helped the State remain virus free. Returning WWI soldiers were quarantined on Bruny Island, south of Hobart.
Dr Ratten was highly aware of the importance of infection control. As an adolescent he experienced an epidemic of typhoid in the NSW town of Parkes, which led to the failure of his father’s private college. During his time as a GP in Sheffield prior to moving to Hobart he had been the Public Health Officer for the Kentish municipality, coping with outbreaks of contagious diseases such as scarlet fever, typhoid, whooping cough, and diphtheria.
He immediately notified the Public Health Department of the flu case and it was decided to open up the isolation hospital at Claremont. The patient was admitted and by the following day there were nine other cases in isolation at Claremont. Sadly, on Friday one of those early patients died.
CONTAINING THE FLU
On August 16, twenty year old hotel worker Sylvia Charles was brought to see Dr Ratten by her foster mother. The young woman was diagnosed with influenza and instructed to consult the Heath Department. She did so, but inexplicably, officials simply told her to go home to bed at the George and Dragon pub. Unfortunately she left a few hours later, prompting a search lasting several days. She was eventually discovered by a police officer at the home of a friend.
The Sylvia Charles incident was a serious error, but the government immediately proclaimed strict measures to contain the disease. All schools, churches and places of entertainment were closed. Race meetings and other sporting events were prohibited. There was a directive that masks be worn on public transport, in shops and at auctions etc. Patrons of licensed hotels were not to remain longer than five minutes, and only three people were allowed in a bar at one time.
By now the flu epidemic was almost over on the mainland, freeing up nurses to travel to Tasmania. In response to a specific request by Dr Ratten, the secretary for Influenza Organization in Melbourne responded;
‘Are you wanting nurses? Fifty trained nurses and partially trained V.A.D.’s want to come to Tasmania’. (The Mercury August 27)
Australia lost 15,000 people to pneumonic flu, very low by world numbers, but still a dreadful toll following the mass casualties of WWI. Of that 15,000, just 171 were Tasmanian cases. The island state recorded one of the lowest death rates in the world. It was an extremely positive outcome, in which Dr Victor Ratten, regardless of his dubious diploma, played a significant part.
FOR THE BACKGROUND TO THE CONTROVERSY OVER DR RATTEN’S DIPLOMA CLICK HERE.