Death and disease on the goldfields

Bendigo Weekly | Bendigo Weekly | 23-Nov-2012

A sketch of Bendigo's first hospital.
Mention has been made of the poor and inadequate drainage of our early settlement here, how this was the cause of much discomfort not only for everyone’s olfactory nerves but also was the source of most of the community’s health problems.
We take for granted the way in which we can now store perishable foods, having a clean water supply, a well operating sewerage system and the many other conveniences at the press of a button or flick of a switch.
When we really think about it, how would we
cope under the circumstances that the early diggers and their families faced when they first arrived here in Bendigo?
There were a number of diseases which were fatal to the goldfield’s population, and the health officer of the local council in co-operation with the police had to be extremely vigilant.
Police and health officials were a partnership which we rarely consider at the present, but at the time  this was almost a symbiotic relationship.
An example of this is that it was an appointed police officer who made inspections regarding sanitation or the lack thereof, and made demands that certain activities had to cease or be curbed, such as slaughtering and butchering animals in one’s own back yard.
Another instance which was recognised as undesirable was to allow cesspools to sit and stagnate on private land.
If the drains which had been commissioned and dug by the council on the sides of roads had insufficient fall, these too were a problem as animal waste accumulated in these low spots, along with road runoff from the horses and bullocks used in transport.
Effluvia was a frequently used word to describe the gaseous smells emanating from the decaying organic material lying in the street gutters.
Another word, now not in regular use, to describe the horrific gaseous smells was miasma.
Many people thought that the smell alone would be the transmitter of disease, however it was not generally understood that water and milk were, in the 1850s, the cause of many of the health afflictions which beset the community.
Diphtheria is a disease which is rare today, yet it was very troublesome in early Bendigo.
Diphtheria is highly contagious, its symptoms are a very high fever and difficulty in breathing and swallowing as it produces a false membrane in the throat.
In the mid 1870s diphtheria created great alarm in Eaglehawk, as it had caused the deaths of a significant number of infants, with older members of the community not being spared either.
At Grassy Flat there was the Naismith family of nine children, who ranged in ages from two to 14, all had
contracted diphtheria with four of their number dying as a result.
Mr and Mrs Naismith thought their children just had serious colds and no medical assistance had been sought.
Those who were treated in hospital for diphtheria were few and far between, as frequently by the time the disease was diagnosed it was already too late.


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