Looking to History for Reassurance

Way back at the beginning of 2020 a friend lent me a copy of The first fifty years : a history of nursing at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney from 1882 to 1932.

When it came time to return the book, COVID-19 was being referred to as CoronaVirus and it was something that was happening in China, barely credible it would spread worldwide. Nevertheless, I took a snapshot of the page referring to the pneumonic influenza which first emerged in Australia in 1919, supposedly brought here by returning soldiers. It is said that the earliest documented case of this influenza strain was March 1918 in Kansas, United States, although a type of bird-flu had already emerged in the military hospitals in Etaples, France in 1916-1917. The devastation of the misnamed “Spanish Flu” on world population is well known, but by around 1921, the term ceased to be daily news in the Australian papers, and gradually morphed into the less noteworthy “influenza”.

I find it comforting to look to history and reassure myself that ‘this too, shall pass’. One day, all that we are experiencing in these times will be reduced to one long paragraph in a history book.

In 1904 Miss Mabel Newill was appointed Matron of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA). She faced off against a raging typhoid epidemic which saw hundreds of patients admitted daily, and implemented innovative and groundbreaking quarantine measures to reduce the patient to nurse, nurse to patient transmission. But we read that even then, as today, in 1919 the flu virus was so virulent as to regularly take nurses out of action. To put the hospital’s statistics into perspective, in 1919 the entire population of Australia was five million, about 800,000 of those in Sydney. Today, the population of Sydney is in excess of five million. In NSW, in the three months since 16 June 2021, when the current outbreak began, there have been 316 COVID-19 related deaths, across a network of modern hospitals.

In this context, it can be appreciated what strain a single hospital was under to experience 180 deaths in six months, and RPA was not the only hospital in Sydney.

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) was named after Queen Victoria’s second son, His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, later Duke of Edinburgh. During a visit to Australia in 1868 Prince Alfred was the victim of an assassination attempt while on a picnic in the northern Sydney suburb of Clontarf

Australians opened a public subscription fund to build a hospital as a memorial to his safe recovery.

RPA opened as a 146-bed hospital and received its first patients in 1882. During that year 1069 patients were admitted.

Today, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital is one of Australia’s premier tertiary referral hospitals and is recognised as a worldwide leader in healthcare excellence and innovation. It is a pioneer in patient care and boasts many Australian “firsts” in surgical, clinical and research healthcare innovations.

https://www.slhd.nsw.gov.au/rpa/about_us.html accessed 28 September 2021

20 thoughts on “Looking to History for Reassurance

  1. Thanks for providing this historical perspective, Gwendolyn. From generation to generation, so much knowledge is lost – knowledge that would both reassure and make us sit up and read the danger signs. And apologies for misspelling your name!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t remember when I first learned about it, but it has long fascinated me. The only history I can remember studying (apart from the two world wars and the Great Depression) was English kings and queens and who discovered Australia. To our great shame we were taught zip Indigenous History.


  2. Good article and observations, Gwen. I had an aunt die in that flu epidemic back then, but I never knew if so much politics was involved as they are now in the US.
    I get my flu shot tomorrow and will find out when get my Covid booster.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The newspapers of the day are full of changing proclamations and rules, people angry at the closure of their businesses, others about mask wearing, etc, etc. So there are similarities. Here, we have politicising because the State leaders sling off against each other, and borders open and close like a barn door, and our Federal leaders alternatively off-load responsibility or take credit, as the mood strikes them.
      We mere mortals are caught in the crossfire – but some liberties are on the horizon for those of us who are double-vaccinated, and probably for all by the end of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s very interesting, but how disappointing humans can’t learn from even relatively recent recorded history. Sadly, although the worldwide response to Covid suggests eventually we get our act together, and despite all the proved and tested information, much has been politicised in an incredibly negative way. Why does wearing a mask make people so angry? I feel none of this augurs well for dealing with the Climate Crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is a legal court challenge on at the moment against our (political) Health Minister and the (public servant) Chief Health Officer over mandatory vaccination for frontline workers. Holds a bit more substance than being asked to wear a mask, but still, troubling in the current times.
      I see our Prime Minister is changing his language around climate change slightly. Coming from a background in marketing, I suspect it is only a small adjustment to suit the current European audience.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh yes, more words, different words, even more words when we need ACTION. I switch off these days the moment I detect a waffling from the radio that is our PM Johnson – they are all the same, manipulating information and lying about what’s going on.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have learned so much from your story Gwen! All very interesting & heartening that “we will get through”. Let’s hope it’s sooner rather than later. The Lockdown has been rather tiresome!

    Liked by 1 person

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