A war cemetery

A war, then a pandemic: remembering veteran alumni from 1919

21 April 2020
Between 1918-19, the Spanish flu devastated Australia, including many of its World War One veterans. Here are the stories of two of them, who were also University of Sydney alumni.
Wounded soldier with the flu at Randwick Military Hospital c1919

Wounded soldier with the flu at Randwick Military Hospital c1919, from the collections of the Australian War Memorial, ref: P02789.002

Navy officers and doctors were among the University of Sydney alumni who suffered the consequences of the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic, as chronicled in a database of alumni involved in the First World War.

In all, 15,000 people died in Australia from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 – the deadliest in history. The pandemic intersected with the return of World War One servicepeople, including former University students. It also forced the University to close for six weeks in May 1919.

Troop ships returning with survivors from the First World War battlefields and other international postings were thought to have contributed to the virus’ intrusion into Australia. Survivors included University of Sydney alumni, like Rev Captain John Newton Stephen (BA 1910).

Aged 35, he was on board the HMAT Medic in November 1918, stationed with the 4th reinforcements, heading for service in France and England. After leaving Wellington, New Zealand, the ship was recalled to Australia due to the armistice. The Spanish flu was already on board.

Rev Captain Stephen wrote to the university of his experience:

A remark made by Dr Andrew Davidson who presided over investigations connected with the Transport will no doubt serve to convey some idea the experiences of all on the ship and also the military quarantine, the remark was made to me ‘If you were on the Medic you can consider yourself very fortunate to be alive’. Some 15 of the finest of our men were buried and most returned having been through hell and apparently nothing accomplished. Nurses went out of their minds, the O.C. Pullman/Pallman (Anzac) was in hospital 6 months afterwards. I remained in the military quarantine until the last of the cases were ready to leave.
Portrait of Dr Noel Halford Franki

Portrait of Dr Noel Halford Franki, courtesy of State Archives NSW

The ship returned to Australia on 9 January 1919, and many of the flu victims were sequestered at North Head Quarantine Station.

Australian soldiers also received treatment for their wounds and the Spanish flu in military hospitals. From 1916, what is now Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick, was the No.4 Military Base Hospital, and later, a rehabilitation hospital for serviceman.

University alumnus Dr Noel Halford Franki (MB ChM 1915), a medic with the Australian Army Medical Corps, worked at the hospital from 1916. He was a very early fatality of the Spanish flu, dying on 29 March 1919 – a week after being diagnosed. He was 29 years old.

To read more, visit Beyond 1914 — The University of Sydney and the Great War: an extensive, searchable database of biographies and archival information about members of the University community involved in the First World War. It is generously funded by the University’s Chancellor’s Committee and its residential colleges.

Hero image credit: Gabe Pierce on Unsplash.

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

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