An archival photo of Australia during the pneumonic influenza.
An archival photo of Australia during the pneumonic influenza.

Does this town hold the clue to surviving a pandemic?

IN 1919 Australia was dealing with the brunt of a global outbreak, much like we are today, except it wasn't COVID-19 but 'Spanish' flu, or pneumonic influenza.

Over 1918-19, that pandemic killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world.

There were several tactics that helped spare Australia from the brunt of the crisis, according to medical historian Dr Peter Hobbins.

In 2018-19 he led a project at the Royal Australian Historical Society to encourage people to research how the 'Spanish' flu affected their community. Entitled An Intimate Pandemic: The Community Impact of Influenza in 1919, the timing of this project proved to be uncanny.

"I didn't know then what we would be facing one year later, but it turned out to be fairly fortuitous," Dr Hobbins said.

Through detailed research he discovered that the Lismore region was one of the earliest places in NSW to experience the pneumonic influenza outbreak in 1919.

After the disease spread from Melbourne to Sydney, travellers to the Lismore region ensured the area experienced the outbreak before places like Newcastle, Bathurst or the Hunter Valley.

There was one town, however, that was spared to some degree after heeding the warnings and lockdown.

Alstonville, a hamlet of 400 people at the time, quarantined themselves from all outsiders.

However, according to Dr Hobbins, they let one soldier into the town to marry his sweetheart in the local Presbyterian church.

The wedding of Percy Latimer to local girl Ilene Bell was attended by 23 people.

"The groom coughed the whole way through the service and by the time the honeymoon couple reached Ballina, he was desperately sick and spent his honeymoon in hospital," Dr Hobbins said.

Out of 23 people at the church service, twenty people came down with 'Spanish' flu.

Dr Hobbins said the town then mobilised if people were sick they stayed home, if a member of a household was sick they were isolated to a room, and visited by only one family member who offered basic nursing care.

The measures worked and ultimately the disease only spread to two other homes in the town. Thanks to this quick action, and a shared commitment to protecting the community, there were no deaths in Alstonville.