Typhoid fever is a contagious disease caused by salmonella bacteria. Outbreaks occur where there is a lack of clean water and sanitary facilities, resulting in poor hygiene. Australia’s outback mining camps presented the perfect breeding ground. In the 1890s there were outbreaks in the NSW goldmining town at Parkes, and on the opal fields at White Cliffs, much further west, near Wilcannia.
In 1894 three cases were admitted to Wilcannia Hospital (White Cliffs lacked medical facilities at the time). A previously fit young miner, Daniel Butler, died. Contaminated water on the field was blamed. The nearest drinkable water was forty miles away, and had to be carted in by water wagon.
By 1897 the opal field extended over a square mile at White Cliffs, and conditions had deteriorated. Broken Hill’s Barrier Miner reported on April 14; ‘Especially in view of the absence of a health officer, doctor, or hospital, the sanitary condition of this place is now shocking. Almost all the water in earthen tanks and abandoned shafts that I have visited, both on the field and in the town, is apparently unfit for human consumption, owing to garbage, dead animals, filth, and other matter in and around the catchments.’
There were calls to have the water analysed, but this measure was considered far too late;
It is of little use analysing the water; its poisonous fruits are now lying in the district hospital. And in the midst of all this dearth of water and sickness no better time could be taken than the present to urge the Government to supply the field and town with artesian water. It is all very well to have a telegraph line and the streets formed and a new courthouse, but without a plentiful supply of pure and wholesome water the health of the community will always be in jeopardy. Under these circumstances it is pleasing to note and encourage individual efforts to minimise the baneful effects of unwholesome water. To secure this end, Mr W. Johnstone of the White Cliffs Hotel has just had completed an underground tank at the rear of his premises. (Barrier Miner, May 6 1897)
Unfortunately, not enough was done. The worst outbreak was to occur the following year, in the summer of 1898.
By March the Wilcannia Hospital was unable to cope with the influx of patients. The wardsman resigned, and due to government red tape and bungling he was not replaced. The lack of supervision meant that two typhoid patients escaped and died from exposure. Another wandered about a mile through the night to where his brother was living and fell into bed with him.
On March 10 a temporary hospital opened on the White Cliffs opal field. Russian born Dr Rosenfield from Victoria was appointed to run the hospital and Miss Mary Hogan, a trained nurse, was brought in from Broken Hill. Many people owed their lives to the pair. Although Mary Hogan was often ill herself at this time, she worked tirelessly until the epidemic was brought under control. The field hospital was able to close in June, but typhoid, along with other infectious diseases, had taken a huge toll on the community.
The memorial plaque shown below tells the story;
How sad it is to think that some of the children may have contracted typhoid due to the terrible conditions at their school. In fairness, the Progress Committee had done their best to improve things;
The committee had visited the place and found that it was in a most filthy condition, no urinal being provided for the boys, the flooring rotting from the effects of urine and the general accommodation being disgraceful. The schoolmaster apparently considered everything was satisfactory and resented their interference, but they intended to do their duty to the town, no matter who was offended….The Chairman said that as the cesspits were at present in existence in a way that was dangerous to the children and the welfare of the town the vigilance committee had better see the sanitary inspector immediately and get the Act enforced. (Barrier Miner, April 1 1898)
500 children died at White Cliffs in the first seven years of its existence, many from typhoid, dysentery and diphtheria.
Stunning pieces of jewellery were created from White Cliffs opal in those early times, but at great cost to the community.
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