Australia in the 1800s


In the 1800s, disease affected Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. There was no immunity, and few medical remedies against imported diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, chickenpox, cholera, whooping cough and influenza, among others. On 9 May 1803 Governor King (1758–1808), worried about the possibility of a smallpox epidemic in the colony being transferred by sailors visiting the ports, wrote to Lord Hobart in London requesting that a vaccine be developed and dispatched. At the time smallpox was the only disease for which there was a vaccine and a small amount of the vaccine had been brought to the colony by surgeons on the First Fleet. However, this vaccine was not available to Indigenous people.

Disease ravished Aboriginal communities. It is believed that smallpox killed over half the Aboriginal population in these early years, particularly affecting the very young and elderly members of Indigenous communities across the country as it moved beyond the frontier. In 1804, John Savage carried out the first smallpox inoculations of the non-Indigenous community after another consignment of the vaccine arrived on the transport ship Coromandel.

Tuberculosis broke out in the colony in 1805 resulting in many deaths. The most common form attacks the lungs with symptoms being flushed cheeks, bright eyes, fever, loss of appetite and a persistent cough, which in the latter stages produces blood.

Due to the primitive knowledge regarding medical science during these years, there was a high infant mortality rate. Surgery was painful and there were no effective anaesthetics. Dentistry was new and extremely painful. Despite these setbacks, colonial children who lived through disease and malnutrition grew much taller and were healthier than their counterparts in Britain.

A snapshot of 1808

  • January
    • The governor, Captain William Bligh, was deposed and placed under house arrest.

  • May
    • Thomas Livingstone Mitchell became surveyor-general following the death of John Oxley.

  • September
    • The first medical diploma in the colony was issued to William Redfern.

  • October
    • The colonial office in London announced the recall of the New South Wales Corps to England.

  • November
    • The Cascades Female Factory for women convicts opened in Hobart Town.


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