Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

History revisited - combatting leprosy

STARTING POINT: Leprosy became a problem in Australia during the Gold Rushes. The first reported case in the New England was in 1881 
I have deferred the next column on the history of history in New England because I need to do more research to complete it.

In 1881, New England’s Chinese community collected subscriptions to send a leprosy sufferer away to Queensland. The plan misfired. Police at Stanthorpe arrested him and sent him back.

Leprosy, now called Hansen's Disease after Norwegian Armauer Hansen who discovered the bacterium that caused it in 1873, has afflicted humans for a long time. It existed in ancient China, India and Egypt as far back as 6000 BC and may have been brought to Europe by Alexander The Great around the 4th Century BC.

The incidence of leprosy peaked in Europe in the fourteenth century. It was a disease that caused great fear and loathing. Lepers were expected to live in isolated colonies and in Europe they carried a bell to warn others of their presence.

While leprosy is still something of a medical mystery, it is clear that the disease is does not deserve the fear and loathing attached to it. In fact, most people who are exposed to the bacterium will never get the disease.

Leprosy affects the skin, the nerves and the lining of the upper respiratory tract, causing areas of skin to lose both pigment and sensation. It is this lack of sensation that results in most tissue damage. You hurt yourself, but don’t notice, leading to serious deformation, the rotting associated in the popular mind with leprosy.

In the nineteenth century, leprosy was endemic in parts of China and was brought to Australia by the incoming gold diggers. Those first Chinese lepers went unrecognised even when treated in hospital. It was not until 1857 that the disease was first identified.

We know that the Chinese diggers who came to New England first for gold and then for tin brought leprosy with them. We do not know how common the disease was, although its incidence was probably quite low.

In 1883, two more lepers were brought down from New England to Newcastle. They had to wait there, for no collier or coastal steamer would carry them to Sydney. The small Chinese community in Newcastle sent them food, but would not go near them. The Government ship Pinafore was sent up to take the patients to the infectious diseases hospital at Little Bay.

By 1888, there were 11 male leprosy patients at Little Bay. A new lazaret or leprosarium was established to isolate them from the rest of the hospital. There they would spend the rest of their lives.

The relationship between leprosy and the Chinese became a potent political weapon. Speakers wishing to stop Chinese migration railed against the “leprous Chinese”. But it was the Aborigines of Northern Australia who became the real victims of the disease.

With no natural immunity and greater concentration in camps, the disease spread, leading to a twentieth century epidemic, another disruption of traditional Aboriginal life. 
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 March 2015. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015.

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