1919: Adaptation, recovery and new beginnings after the Spanish Influenza

[vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”grid” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern” z_index=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]This week’s Prototype stories describe how engineers and technologists are collaborating with medical scientists, front-line hospital personnel and medical equipment supply chains to support the entire world’s response to fight COVID-19.  

Currently, the University of Sydney has moved its teaching online, staff are working from home, and the University is bracing against the financial impact of a potential $200 million shortfall caused by a large number of overseas students deferring studies.

Domestically and globally, the oncoming human impact seems overwhelming, but the world experienced similar difficulties with the Spanish Influenza outbreak following World War I when soldiers from Europe repatriated to Australia and America. Just as coronavirus started in Wuhan in 2019 and continues to spread in 2020, the Spanish Flu started in the northern hemisphere in 1918, reaching its peak locally in Australia in 1919.[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space height=”52px”][vc_column_text]

Sydney’s Historical Perspective


Social distancing has yielded greater consumption of social media these past two weeks. Disinformation, snarky memes and conspiracy theories contribute to self-isolation negativity and bring us all down. The economic crisis adds to the health anxieties.

Perhaps the local historical context about how the society faced down similar challenges in our past can provide comfort today. It might also yield some positive stories to share with friends over FaceTime. 

(Photo: University of Sydney archives)


These headlines from 1919 seem eerily familiar:


Medical Students Save the Day

When Sydney faced the Spanish Influenza pandemic in 1919, many of the city’s doctors had not yet returned from WWI in Europe, so University of Sydney medical students were dispatched to care for patients.  Similarly, today New York University is presently mobilising senior medical students to graduate early to help fight coronavirus in New York City.

(Photo: University of Sydney archives)

School Closures Disrupt Lives

On May 5, 1919, Sydney University closed for six weeks. Today’s school closures echo the past, but students and teachers are moving over to technological solutions. Recent school closures across Australia are a temporary inconvenience.

Mandatory Masks

On the streets these days, it is quite common to see people wearing surgical masks or high efficiency particulate filter masks.  Even during this summer’s bush fires, masks were common on the streets. However, in 1919, it was mandatory to wear masks in public.

(Image: Sydney Morning Herald from NLA Trove)

A Peek at the Full Text:


Pleading guilty yesterday at the Central Police Court to the charge of being in an Oxford-street tram without wearing a mask, Eileen Leigh, 19, was fined 20/, in default, seven days’ imprisonment. Defendant said that she had her mask under her chin as she was suffering from catarrh. 

For being in Oxford-street without a mask, Sydney Vincent Jones, 18, labourer, was fined 30/, in default, 10 day imprisonment, The prosecuting constable said that the defendant gave a wrong address.

Frank Edward Roberts, 37, wharf-labourer, was fined 20/, in default, seven days’ imprisonment, for being in Elizabeth-street without a mask. For a similar offence in Bellevue-street, James Clarke, 28, barman, was also fined 20/, Clarke said he understood that persons were not required to wear masks in unfrequented streets.

Government’s Precautions One Hundred Years Ago


(Image: Sydney Morning Herald from NLA Trove)

Although some attribute the current lack of resolve as a modern phenomenon, plenty of uproar arose from Spanish Flu quarantine orders. In 1919, irritated citizens wrote letters to the Sydney Morning Herald complaining about how staying inside with family requires discipline and discomfort. Today, those complaints are aired on television and in social media.

Excerpt from SMH 25Feb1919


Many letters have been sent to us for publication, some of which show that there is an acute difference of opinion with respect to the value of the precautionary measures ordered by the Government against pneumonic influenza. … But we pride ourselves, and with reason, that we are an enlightened community, and we can, therefore, understand that it is better to put up with a little discomfort the bearing of which will surely prove a valuable discipline, in the event of such an outbreak as the rest of the world has experienced.  It is necessary to state, however, that although these differences of opinion exist, the people of New South Wales have as a matter of fact co-operated loyally with the Government in all the measures which have been taken. This is a matter for national pride. It goes far to show that as a community we are sincerely anxious to co-operate in anything which will promote the public good. This spirit, evidenced now, can be developed with advantage to be applied to the solution of other problems as difficult and important as that of fighting this present scourge.

From Hardship, Comes Leadership Innovation


(Image: Sydney Morning Herald from NLA Trove)

By spring 1919, life was sufficiently normal that society began looking forward towards the future and to building new institutions to advance the nation.  In October 1919, the Institution of Engineers Australia was founded “to promote the science and practice of engineering”. The first President was Professor William Henry Warren for whom The Warren Centre is named. 

Full text of SMH: October 23, 1919


The Institution of Engineers of Australia was formally Inaugurated at a council meeting held in Sydney on Monday. The Institution has been formed to promote the science and practice of engineering, and, generally, to bring about a closer cooperation of engineers throughout Australia. A constitution has been finally adopted, and the Institution is founded on a Federal basis, and will have a national scope, because the existing societies in every State of the Commonwealth have joined together to form the new Institution.

It was stated that many big questions, and which could only be properly handled by a national body, are awaiting determination. They include such matters as engineering standardisation, application of science to Industry, and the development of Australian Industries, especially those which require original research by technical men. Every branch of the profession, and practically every important public department and private Industry, are represented in the Institution. The office-bearers for the first year are: President, Prof. W. H. Warren, M.I.C.E., L.L.D.; vice-presidents, Mr. V. J. Newbigin, of Melbourne, and Mr. Lawson, of Perth, Western Australia; hon. secretary, Mr. D. F. J. Harricks, of Sydney; hon. treasurer, Mr. J. P. Tivey, of Sydney.

At the Inaugural general meeting held in the evening Professor Warren stated that the Institution started with 2000 members.

What’s Happening at The Warren Centre Now

Today as the University bolsters against economic disruption, like many other educational institutions and businesses in Australia and across the globe, it has become necessary for The Warren Centre to decrease our expenditures and reduce staffing. We are reorganising our programs for 2020 in order to ramp up again after the current crisis. We look back at the lessons from the past and stay hopeful for a brighter future knowing that economic recovery will require reinvigorated efforts to ”promote the science and practice of engineering, and, generally, to bring about a closer cooperation of engineers throughout Australia.”  As a valued Friend of The Warren Centre, we hope you stay with us on this journey through the crisis on to a new future. For the current time, we’ll be doing things differently and digitally.  Stay tuned!

Keep yourself, your family and your friends safe and sound.  

Ashley Brinson, Executive Director[/vc_column_text][vc_empty_space][vc_empty_space][vc_empty_space][vc_empty_space][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row css_animation=”” row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”grid” angled_section=”no” text_align=”left” background_image_as_pattern=”without_pattern” z_index=””][vc_column][vc_empty_space][vc_separator type=”normal”][vc_column_text]

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