Black Death in Queensland

Did you know?

Outbreaks of bubonic plague, spread by rats and introduced by ships from overseas, were common in Queensland at the turn of the century.

The first known case of plague in Australia was reported in Sydney in January 1900.  The first case in Queensland occurred in Rockhampton in April 1900 and not long after cases arose in Townsville and Brisbane.

The first victim in Brisbane was a carter who worked at the wharves and who lived in Woollongabba.  He was admitted to the hastily built Colmslie Plague Hospital.   The patient’s house was cleansed and fumigated, bed linen and curtains burned, and an iron stockade was erected around the property and two neighbouring houses.

Barricade around houses in Woolloongabba Barricade around houses in Woolloongabba.  Image no. 47426

Bubonic plague in Woolloongabba, 1900 Bubonic plague in Woolloongabba, 1900.  Image no. 47425

For the next nine years epidemics occurred each year and were confined to ports.  The only inland centre which had the plague was Ipswich.  Measures taken to combat the disease included the surveillance of vessels arriving in the state, the destruction of rats, the establishment of isolation hospitals and special provisions for the disposal of the dead.  Plague victims who succumbed to the disease were wrapped in sheets soaked in carbolic acid and their coffins were slaked with lime.

Plague protection, 1905 Plague protection, 1905.  Image no. 53460

Destroyed rats, 1900-1902 Destroyed rats, 1900-1902.  Image no. 108588

After 1909 there were twelve plague-free years.  This led to a slackening in the regulations and a man died of plague suddenly in Brisbane in 1921.  This outbreak caused sixty-three deaths.  The last case of plague was reported in Queensland in 1922.

Sources in the John Oxley Library about the plague include:

Patrick, Ross, A history of health & medicine in Queensland 1824-1960, St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1987   (Q614.09943 PAT)

Ham, B. Burnett, Report on plague in Queensland 1900-1907,  Brisbane: Government Printer, 1907   (RBQ 614.5732 HAM)

Thearle, M. John, Plague revisited: the black death: an account of plague in Australia, 1900-1923,  Sydney: Royal Australian College of Physicians, 1994  (P616.9232 THE)

Annual Reports of the Department of Health were published in the Queensland Parliamentary Papers  which are available on microfilm (level 3 of the library)