The Spanish flu pandemic of 1919
Part 1: the New South Wales Bar in 1919
In early 1919 the first cases of Spanish flu, or “pneumonic influenza”, were diagnosed in Australia. Determined efforts were made to slow the spread of the virus, but 40 per cent of the population fell ill and more than 15,000 people died. There was much about the pandemic that is eerily familiar to us today: political discord, confusion over the efficacy of face masks, bogus remedies, hard questions over the health and safety of jurors and challenges to the constitutionality of border closures and quarantine regulations.
The New South Wales Bar, like every institution at the time, was tested. Many members contracted the flu and we know of at least two barristers who died. One was George Long Innes, the son of a Supreme Court judge, who died one week after contracting influenza at a rugby game during the winter of 1919. The other was George Martin, the youngest son of the former chief justice, Sir James Martin. We know of others who were infected yet survived, including Rex Chambers, Thomas O’Mara, John Neild, Roderick Kidston and Alroy Cohen.
One important distinction between COVID-19 and the Spanish flu is that in 1919 the wearing of face masks was mandatory. On 18 February 1919 Sydney's Daily Telegraph reported on the opening of Law Term, during which the Full Bench of the Supreme Court appeared without masks. Chief Justice Sir William Cullen observed that while masks were required under the law, he was “justified in dispensing to some extent, with the strictness of the regulations”. The attorney general of the day, D R Hall, decided not to attend the ceremony so as not to “add to any over-crowding of the court”. Naturally, there were many trials and appeals, including a case run by Mr HV Evatt, barrister, in which a doctor from Balmain was awarded 150 pounds compensation for false imprisonment.
The Bar Association has commissioned Juliette Brodsky to produce this interesting two-part video, examining the history of the NSW Bar during two pandemics, a little over a century apart. Juliette has, over many years, produced the association's interesting and authoritative Oral History Interviews. Here, she speaks with Tony Cunneen, whom Bar News readers will know from his many interesting articles on the history of the New South Wales Bar during the First World War and the tumltuous passage through the parliament of a bill that finally allowed women to take their rightful place in the profession of law.
Part 2: 'Pneumonic influenza'
- Tony Cunneen
- the Bar Library
- Justice Michael Slattery (Supreme Court of NSW)
- The Jeffrey family
- Francis Forbes Society for Australian Legal History
- Monte Luke Photography Studio
- The Australian War Memorial
- The National Library of Australia
- The State Library of NSW
- The State Library of Victoria
- Museum of Victoria
- The State Library of Queensland
- The State Library of South Australia
- University of Sydney Archives
- University of Wollongong
- Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums
- Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences
- Imperial War Museum (UK)
- Getty Images / Hulton Archive
The tracks “Epic” and ”Birth of a Hero” which are used in the videos are royalty-free music courtesy of www.bensound.com
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