Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Belgian Gardens School & the 1919 Influenza epidemic

As the Belgian Gardens State School celebrates its 125th anniversary, it’s a great time to discuss an aspect of its history that is now almost forgotten.  The school, which was originally called the Townsville North State School, was requisitioned in 1919 during the Influenza epidemic for use as an isolation hospital.  Tents supplied by the army were erected in the school grounds.  Over a period of ten weeks, a total of 195 patients were hospitalised at the school and remarkably, considering the death rate, only six people died.

Dr Walter Blake Nisbet practised medicine in Townsville for 30 years, including during the 1919 Influenza epidemic.  He estimated that somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000 of  Townsville’s citizens (or 25%) of the population contracted the illness in some form.  Eighteen people died in the epidemic, ten of those in hospital and eight in private homes.  During the epidemic strict rules were imposed on Townsville’s population.  Public meetings were banned, picture theatres and schools were closed and the main city streets were sprayed with disinfectant.

In a letter to the Mayor of Townsville dated 15th August 1919, Dr Nisbet (who was Medical Officer of Health at the time) praised the efforts of the Matron in charge of the isolation hospital - Hannah Sarah Pengelly.  He wrote:

“The ideal and harmonious working of this hospital, chiefly with a band of young untrained workers, shows what women can do in an emergency.  A large share of praise is also due to the tactful and untiring energies of the Matron – Nurse Pengelly”.

Both Dr Nisbet and Matron Pengelly are buried in the West End Cemetery in Townsville. 

Headstone of Walter Blake Nisbet, died May 1920. Photo: T. Fielding

Headstone of Hannah Sarah Pengelly, died 6 December 1940. Photo: T. Fielding