The Bubonic Plague terrified Sydney in the early 20th century.

March 19th
Fishes and prawns are dying by thousands in the harbor it is supposed as a result of the disinfectant poured into the sewers as a plague preventative

This casual reference to the plague jumped out at me when I was browsing through the Waite diary for 1900.

The Waite in question was Edgar Ravenswood Waite, who joined the Australian Museum in 1893. He worked here as head of Mammalogy until 1906, when he left Australia to take up the position of Curator of the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch in New Zealand.

Edgar Waite seems to have taken the Bubonic Plague epidemic in his stride:

In view of the approaching sanitary inspection re the Bubonic Plague, I spent the morning in putting matters in order, sinks, drains and so on.” [diary entry for Sunday March 25th 1900]

Despite his rather matter-of-fact acceptance, he took precautions:

This week in consequence of the plague scare I commenced taking my lunch to the Museum the restaurants being probable sources of infection.” [diary entry for April 3rd 1900]

Perhaps Edgar Waite had a very low opinion of the hygiene standards of Sydney restaurants, or perhaps he shared a common opinion of the time: namely, that plague was spread directly from an infected person.

In 1900 the number of visitors to the Australian Museum decreased by 4,962 from the previous year. The Annual Report for that year explained "...that the whole of the decrease occurred during the months when the plague was at its height in Sydney."

It was John Ashburton Thompson, chief medical officer of the Board of Health, who “showed that the plague is primarily a disease of rats, transmitted only by the flea to rats and humans”.

This idea had first been put forward by French scientist, Paul-Louis Simond in 1898, when he discovered the presence of plague in the fleas found on dying rats. He had been ridiculed at the time for his theory that they were the means of transmission of the disease.

But even though the role of fleas was not accepted, the role of rats in the spread of the plague was well understood. All over Australia, both householders and official rat-catchers hunted down the rodents. In Sydney more than 44,000 rats were killed and their bodies burned.

All ships arriving from ports where there was an outbreak of the plague were thoroughly examined before being allowed to proceed to dock in Australian cities. Infected persons and their contacts were isolated at the Quarantine stations and their houses were sealed.

Much of The Rocks area of Sydney was demolished at the time. Urban renewal may have been a factor in this but fear of the plague was very great. So much so that residents helped “..cleanse, disinfect and even burn and demolish their own houses in infected areas.

Despite these efforts, there were another 11 major outbreaks of the plague in Australia until 1925, when it was finally brought under control. In all of Australia over all of the outbreaks there were 1371 cases reported, of which 535 died. This was a surprisingly small number for 25 years of Bubonic Plague outbreaks.


Further reading:

Rats and Fleas in Their Relation to Plague by Y E. W. Ferguson. M.B., CH.M. Principal Microbiologist, Department of Public Health.

Bubonic Plague Comes to Sydney in 1900

Edgar Waite’s Diaries

"THE BUBONIC PLAGUE." The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957) 2 March 1900: 6. Web. 9 Nov 2016 <>.

Epidemic - Bubonic Plague, Australia-wide 1900-1925

State Library archives reveal a city under seige as bubonic plague sparks panic and a mass cleansing of Sydney slums