Auckland Hospital and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic

On 12 October 1918, the Canadian-Australasian Royal Mail Lines steamer Niagara docked at Queens Wharf. The Prime Minister, William Massey and the Minister of Finance Sir Joseph Ward were among the passengers. Two days after leaving Vancouver, a first-class passenger had presented with influenza: then on leaving Honolulu, illness appeared among the crew. Cases rapidly developed; the first serious one on 5 October.

Auckland Hospital and the 1918 Influenza Epidemic
A page from Auckland Hospital’s 1918 Admissions Register. Image supplied by author.

Twelve men were confined to the ship’s hospital. Three were severely ill; a fireman previously gassed, a delirious steward, and the heavily built Boatswain’s mate with broncho-pneumonia, who died at midnight. Port Health Officer, Dr. C. C. Russell and the District Health Officer Dr Hughes boarded the ship, with instructions from the Health Department to administer inhalation of two parts of zinc-sulphate to all on board. People disembarking were to report to their home-town health authorities. After seeing some patients, they concluded the illness was simple influenza. A telegram was sent to the Minister of Health, who replied, “Ship may be cleared.”

Fifty-eight cases were isolated in the second-class smoke-room, and Police constables helped carry the sickest men to ambulances on the wharf.

Auckland Hospital’s 1918 Admissions Register indicates few people with influenza were admitted before the Niagara arrived. That changed. Senior Sisters and doctors had gone to man hospital ships during World War I, and with little warning, the remaining staff hastily prepared the isolation block. Within a few days, the nurses and doctors developed the flu. People around the city were admitted, and by 23 October, Auckland had over a thousand cases. With the hospital overflowing, the crew were returned to their ship, apart from the two sickest men. Influenza was no longer confined to the isolation block. The main building was used after the first fortnight, and extra beds were everywhere. Expectant mothers with the flu were very ill. Not all survived. Some had already lost their husbands.

Treatments included linseed poultices around the chest, the standard hospital cough mixture, brandy, and sometimes strychnine (used in small doses for respiratory depression).

Image Description
Image Description
The author, Vivien Edwards, in a 1918 nurse's uniform in front of a photo of an old ward. Image supplied by author.

One of the crew, Owen Quinn, aged 23, from Liverpool, died, and every nurse who attended the Niagara patients became ill. Two died; Nurse Crossing, who tended the men on the ship, and Pauline Rudinger, a second year Auckland Hospital nurse. One hundred and forty-one of the one hundred and eighty nursing staff were affected, including the Lady Superintendent, Miss Ada Taylor. But although the epidemic caused major disruption and thousands of New Zealanders died, it was short-lived, lasting only till the end of the year, unlike Covid. The Government committed £14,000, enabling the Auckland Hospital Board to assist epidemic widows, widowers and dependents. An advertisement in local papers thanked those had who assisted, including the Women’s National Reserve; the Boy Scouts who delivered thirty thousand bottles of standard hospital medicine, St. John’s Ambulance Brigade which helped over eleven thousand cases, and the medical profession.

Controversy as to whether the Niagara’s passengers were allowed to disembark, because Government ministers were on board, led to a Royal Commission of Enquiry, by Sir John Edward Denniston, Edward Mitchelson, and David McLaren. They found the cause of introduction, was the infective element of epidemic influenza, prevalent in Europe, Great Britain, South Africa and America, being conveyed by sea. The epidemic extended largely because precautionary measures were disregarded in the initial stages, due to lack of knowledge. Gravity of the situation was not recognised when a wireless message was received from the ship on 11 October. Niagara’s arrival in Auckland, was a substantial factor in introducing influenza, but the evidence did not exclude the possibility of other sources of infection.

The author has shared her memories of the laying of the memorial stone to commemorate the victims of the influenza epidemic:

"The memorial stone to commemorate the victims of the influenza epidemic was laid at Waikumete Cemetery, with a memorial service held on 25 September 1988 in the Chapel of Faith in the Oaks in the cemetery. The chapel had just been restored by Judy Long-Cregeen and periodic detention workers, who also built a toilet to match the chapel. The granite stone was donated by monumental masons R.G. Thompson. They used a MacIIe computer with logo and sign writing software and adapted a Graphic 4B printer to cut and produce stencils from 300 mm masking tape to use on headstones before sandblasting to create the wording and symbols requested by families. It sounds like old technology now, but was new at the time.

The manager, John Mackie had read my article on the epidemic in the Auckland Star, and sent me an invitation. He knew who I was, as I previously interviewed him for an article for 'Bits and Bytes.'

The uniforms [worn in the above photograph] were kept at the Green Lane Nursing school at the time, but are now in the Auckland Museum. From left in the photo is me, wearing what was thought to be a Sister's uniform, but was possibly for the nurse, who had gone through preliminary training. Centre is the late Diana Masters, wearing the Lady Superintendent's uniform. (The veil is unclear against the sky, and the belt should have been white, but was missing). Patricia Aley is on the right, wearing what was known as the 'butcher's blue' for preliminary training."