I acknowledge the Traditional Owners on whose land I walk, I work and I live. I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future.

Monday, 29 May 2017

A life to be endured

In the comfort of our ‘first world’ lives we still battle terrible health scourges: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or miner’s black lung for which we desperately try to find cures. While we no longer live in fear of epidemics of diphtheria, measles, whooping cough or polio because these have largely been eradicated where inoculation programmes have been successfully implemented, it also makes us complacent, because we have no scarring memory of mothers in out back mining Queensland towns like Ravenswood, burying child after child, within days, when diphtheria swept through the town. If we happen to visit the desolate, dilapidated graveyards of yesteryear and stand at the foot of such graves the misery and tragedy is tangible. Walk around the old Ingham Cemetery or the Victoria Estate Cemetery or any older cemetery and you can’t but be struck by the youth of the deceased and the appreciation that they died from things which today are largely preventable because of availability of medicines, access to health services, inoculation and attention to safe working practice.
Dan Sheahan, our own bard, as always, has the words to describe what it was like in the not so long ago days of early Ingham when:
“No medical aid when Doctor was wanted –
The Priest and the Parson were far, far away –
Their women beside them they plowed and planted…
When hot fever came, unaided they’d linger –
No ambulance raced “at the double” for them –“

If we look at the first years of European settlement in the Valley we see that that death visited the small community with heartbreaking frequency. Infant and child mortality rate was very high and death did not discriminate by nationality or status. The Aboriginal population was decimated by European diseases and the death rate amongst the Melanesian indentured labourers was staggering. Medical care was very much reliant on home remedies, castor oil being a common cure all, and the generous and capable women who acted as midwives to neighbouring women.  Much of what faced them was beyond their knowledge and abilities: breech births, bullet wounds, severed limbs, strange fevers, snake bite, impacted wisdom teeth, dysentery, measles, typhoid, diphtheria, meningitis, respiratory illnesses, convulsions, and the plethora of childhood illnesses that were potentially fatal in those days, all confounded them. Sadly neglect and earth-eating, because of poor diet, were also causes of death in children. Robert Shepherd commented that “there were few settlers and their wives who were able to rear all their children … with some families suffering blow after blow.” 

The first so called doctors who found their way to the Valley were often inept, as much victims of the harsh conditions they found themselves in and of the drunkenness succumbed to by the young men they came to tend.  In fact it was observed that “the easiest way to find the town doctor was to look in the gutters in front of the hotels”.  Arthur Neame records in his diary that  a doctor who had came to the Valley lived in a shanty on the river bank was “not good, he was often drunk and used to draw drugs from our store containing opium to mix as medicine for his patients, and take them himself.” Neame ended up studying a book a doctor had given him and did all the doctoring on his plantation himself. The first competent, permanent doctor came to Ingham in 1883. His name was Dr. W.C. Macdonald. He was fired by a determination to do something about the health problems rife in the Valley. Apparently he “persuaded, threatened and blustered for a more realistic approach to environmental problems along with rigorous treatment.”
Sheahan, D. “Back to Ingham.” Songs from the Canefields. Josephine R. Sheahan, Ingham, 1972.
Shepherd, Robert. “The Herbert River Story: The Health Menace.” Herbert River Express, January 14, 1992; and "The Herbert River Story: The Black Years Pass." Herbert River Express, January 28, 1992.
Moore, Clive. “Whips and Rum Swizzles.” Lectures on North Queensland History. Townsville: History Department, James Cook University of North Queensland, 1975.
Neame, Arthur. The Diary of Arthur Neame 1870-1897.
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
Ingham Hospital Board members, 1909
 People pictured: (back row L-R): R.S. Alston, B. Lynn, Dr. W.C. MacDonald, Hon. A.S. Cowley, J. Menzies, A. Friend. (sitting): Nurse Probationer L. Bonning, Sam Allen, A.J. Cobroft, Jim Ryan, J.J. Cockburn, Matron Macartney.
Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Collection

Womens ward of the Ingham Hospital Queensland 1916
Source: State Library of Queensland: View this image at the State Library of Queensland: hdl.handle.net/10462/deriv/97694

Ingham Ambulance vehicle 1925
An ambulance vehicle used in Ingham, pictured with First Superintendent Mr Edgar Von Alpen.
Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Collection

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