In 1919, an influenza epidemic swept across the world; a world which was re-emerging after the First World War. An estimated 500 million people were infected worldwide, with over 50 million dead. Australia did not escape through its isolation. Soldiers returning from the battlefields of Europe were particularly at risk.
On the 24 January 1919, a traveller arrived from Melbourne with symptoms of influenza. The Board of Health had been anticipating such an event and quickly mobilised its resources to restrict the spread. Four days later, the Australian Government ordered all places where crowds congregated to close. The closures included “libraries, schools, churches, theatres, public halls, places of indoor resort for public entertainment”. By the end of January, all citizens were required to wear masks.
When the University of Sydney suspended lectures and closed schools, medical students and teachers often took on voluntary roles in the hospitals, local relief centres and convalescent units. One such student was Wallace Freeborn (1898–1971) (MM, MB ChM). Freeborn was a 16-year-old high school student when he enlisted in the army in 1915 (he recorded his age as 18 on official records). He served in Egypt and subsequently at Pozières, France, where he was wounded. Following his repatriation in July 1916, he returned to school, matriculated and in 1919, entered the (then) Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney.
Within a few weeks, with the school closed, Freeborn volunteered as a Red Cross worker. He went on to become the General Medical Superintendent at Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH) in 1948, the year it became a teaching hospital of the University of Sydney. In 1919, however, the RNSH was a small cottage hospital serving an expanding, but virtually isolated, population on the north shore. On 28 March 1919, a representative of the Board of Health contacted the hospital to request that 65 beds (more than half the hospital complement of 120 beds) be isolated for use by influenza patients. Within a few days, not only had the beds been cleared, but a small wooden building appeared on the hospital grounds to house the 34 nurses who were required to nurse the patients in isolation.
The hospital received 534 influenza patients between 28 March and 31 July; 74 of these patients died. Twenty of the nurses contracted influenza, but fortunately, all recovered. One medical practitioner, Dr St Vincent Welch (1881–1919) (DSO, MB ChM 1906), a veteran of Gallipoli and the Somme, where he too was wounded,tragically died of influenza at RNSH on 21 May 1919.
The pathology department of this small hospital, under the direction of Dr CH Burton Bradley (MB ChM Sydney MRCS Eng LRCP DPH Lond.), using the blood from volunteer donors, made sufficient vaccine to inoculate 25,000 of the population. In the wake of the influenza outbreak and with recognition that the hospital needed to expand, Dr Emma Buckley (MB ChM 1911) was the successful candidate for the new position of Medical Superintendent and Associate Pathologist, a position she filled until her marriage in 1922.
What an extraordinary commitment from the nurses and doctors at the Royal North Shore Hospital, all early graduates of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney. These men and women set the hospital on a course towards the teaching hospital that it is today.