Bubonic plague, 1900


Plague measures at Hawthorne Street, Woolloongabba, 1900 State Library of Queensland

Various parts around Australia, such as Townville and Sydney, reported cases of bubonic plague in 1900, carried by infected fleas and rats in ocean-travelling ships and their cargoes.

In Brisbane, itself a busy shipping port, the first reported case was a Woolloongabba man in April 1900. James Dreveson, who worked as a van driver at the Brisbane wharves, lived in Hawthorne Street and was taken along with his close contacts to an isolation hospital at Colmslie. The street was closed off and put under police guard, while Dreveson’s house and the surrounding properties were barricaded behind a fence and soon demolished.

These measures were not entirely effective, as in 1900 Brisbane recorded 56 infections and 25 deaths, all of them buried in an isolated cemetery on Gibson Island near the mouth of the Brisbane River.

Over the next seven years to 1907, there were annual outbreaks in Queensland’s ports as authorities struggled to keep the epidemic under control. Measures included quarantining of vessels, eradication of rats and isolation of patients and their close contact. Nevertheless some 464 cases of bubonic plague were reported in Brisbane to 1907, and of these people 195 of them died (McBride, 1997: p. 1). The last cases were reported in 1909, but with a further outbreak in 1921-22 when 65 Queenslanders died.