A sad time in 1859 with the scarlet fever epidemic

There was a severe epidemic of Scarlet fever in Australia in the mid 1800’s.  With so many new travellers arriving by ship, a quarantine station was built in Victoria.  Some research shows that in Victoria in 1859 there were 50 deaths by scarlet fever, the next year there were 427 deaths.

One can only imagine the distress that this horrible disease caused our relatives in 1859.  To loose so many young children in a very short time would have caused so much heartache, anguish and sadness.  To loose one child would be distressing enough, we cannot in any way imagine what that tragedy caused to the families.   The family crypts are located in St Peter's Anglican Cemetery, in Oatlands, Tasmania.

Thomas and Mary Ann Jillett lost 3 children, and John and Phoebe Jillett lost 4 all within a few weeks.  The deaths occurred between January and February of 1859.

Report from The Courier  Saturday 26 February 1859

  This was just after Thomas and his brother John lost their children to scarlet fever, and before the death of Edwin Jillett who died on 28th February, 1859



Oatlands -  Under the heading of “Local Intelligence” in the Mercury of Wednesday last, appeared a paragraph of a very alarming character, and directly calculated to cause a panic, not only in the township of Oatlands, but also throughout the length and breadth of the district itself.  The paragraph was in substance that “great sickness prevailed in the district among the young, from fever and sore throat, that within the past three weeks no less than twelve children had been buried; and that those who could afford it had sent their children to town for medical advice.  We beg to state upon undoubted authority that the paragraph to which we have called attention is erroneous, since as many as twelve children have not died in Oatlands during the last six months, much less in three weeks.

The only deaths among children which have occurred in Oatlands from the malady above have been confined to two families, which have we lament to say, been bereaved of six children.  Four of these died there, but only three were under medical treatment.  The other two died in Hobart Town whence they had been conveyed by their parents.  One other death, that of an infant two years of age took place a fortnight ago, but not from fever or any other contagious disease.

We are informed that there is at present not one serious case of illness among children in this district and as that part of the Mercury’s local which states that those who could afford it have sent their children to town for medical attention would lead to the belief that Oatlands was without the benefit of medical aid, we may observe that there are two gentlemen of the faculty resident on the township, whose treatment of the very few other children who have been attached has been successful and satisfactory.  We think it highly conservable in any writer, whether from ignorance or any other means to spread consternation in families by such an exaggerated statement as that which we have been called upon to contradict and comment.

The two families in question are no doubt those of Thomas and John Jillett.  While the writer is possibly one of the medical staff in the region who was a bit upset that the Jilletts chose to take their children to Hobart for treatment.

Undoubtedly the death certificates showing "ulcerated throats" were also scarlet fever, as that is exactly what occurs.

  However, there was a serious scarlet fever epidemic not only in Oatlands but in Tasmania and the mainland.  The epidemic has been raging for almost 10 years, and in the 1860’s still continued.  It was joined with many other plagues and epidemics, until something was done to address the sewerage problems.

A search through the newspaper archives reveals numerous stories about the scarlet fever epidemic, in fact one elite school in Hobart even placed advertisements in the newspapers advising that they had no students suffer with the sickness, so it would be safe to enrol students.

Another newspaper report on Friday 16th December 1853:

Oatlands       The scarlet fever is prevalent in Oatlands; there is scarcely a house in which some of the inmates are not suffering under this fearful visitation.

And a letter to the Editor of the Daily Courier Monday 6th June 1853

Launceston, 31st May 1853

Sir - In your account of deaths I perceive lately many poor children from scarlet fever.  Anxious to point out a remedy of easy access to all, I beg to quote from Dr. Graham’s Domestic Medicine, in his Appendix to the same on Hydropathy.

In Scarlet Fever.

“Clergymen are, unhappily, too frequently called to witness the sufferings of poor children under this dangerous disease, andif they will attend to the following directions, they cannot fail to be the messengers of mercy, to dry many a poor mother’s tears, relieve many a poor child’s agonies, and lesson materially the spread of a virulent infection.

“Give an emetic of one scruple of Ipecacuanha* powder in water every morning (and in the evening also, if the throat is very sore), and wash the whole body twice or thrice a day with cold water.  Nothing more is necessary to cure scarlet fever, - all cases both mild and severe.  The water must be cold, fresh from the pump or spring; and the ablution performed when the skin is hot and dry.  The more ardent the fever, the freer should be the ablution.   Whenever scarlet fever prevails in a parish, it is almost incredible the amount of good a clergyman may do who goes amongst the sick armed simply with one ounce of ipecacuanha powder and a large spoon.”

Trusting you may find room for this quotation from the work of an eminent medical authority in your columns,

I remain, Sir, Your most obedient servant.

Well is it any wonder the children died.  The treatment 100 years later included the use of the powerful drug penicillian.
(Almost 100 years after the epidemic in Australia,as a 6 year old,  I too suffered the illness.    KH)

* Indications: Ipecacuanha is mainly used as an expectorant in bronchitis and conditions such as whooping cough. At higher doses it is a powerful emetic and as such is used in the treatment of poisoning. Care must be taken in the use of this herb. After an effective emetic dose has been given, large amounts of water should be taken as well. In the same way that Ipecac helps expectoration through stimulation of mucous secretion and then its removal, it stimulates the production of saliva. It has been found effective in the treatment of amoebic dysentery.

Scarlatina Maligna, or Malignant Scarlet Fever.

Under this name is designated an affection which oftentimes exhibits none of the features of scarlet fever, but is recognized as such by its occurrence among children during an epidemic of the disease. The patient seems simply overwhelmed by some acute poisoning ; lies prostrate, perhaps unconscious, with cold extremi­ties. There is usually no fever ; death commonly occurs in a few hours, before the appearance of an eruption or other characteristic features of scarlet fever.

Then, again, there are cases in which the throat affection and the general appearance and history of the patient indicate that the disease is scarlet fever, although the characteristic rash may not appear ; and there are­ still others in which the rash may be insig­nificant in quantity, while the skin is reddened in patches by the escape of blood into its structure.

One characteristic feature of scarlet fever, as distinguished from all other eruptive diseases, is the rash ; after this has been seen a few times it is usually easy of recognition subsequently. Scarlet fever is especially apt to be mistaken for measles ; several points of distinction will be mentioned subsequently, and it will suffice here to call attention to a few items: the brevity of the stage of invasion (one or two days prior to the appearance of the eruption); the intensity of the fever ; the appearance of the throat difficulty before the rash on the skin becomes visible, and the persistence of the fever after the rash has appeared. The difficulties in recognizing the disease occur in those mild cases in which the eruption is very slight without any soreness of the throat; also in those instances (scarlatina anginosa) in which there is little or no eruption, but severe affection of the throat. In some of these cases even the experienced physician maybe compelled to decide by the surroundings of the patient - the prevalence of an epidemic of scarlet fever, for instance.

Treatment.- With our present means we have no power to cut short scarlet fever any more than the other infectious diseases.The remark made as to the treatment of one holds good for the mall : that the object is to support and guard the patient from the ravages of the disease. In ordinary mild cases of scarlet fever no formal treatment is necessary ; the child should be sponged or  immersed in a hot bath several times daily, half a teaspoonful of sweet spirits of nitre may be given every four hours (if the child be three or more years old) ; if there be constipation a saline laxative may be given. One of the troublesome features is the management of the  throat affection. Fortunately, this feature is absent in many cases except in a slight degree ; for these the old remedy of muriatic acid and honey in equal parts as a gargle (diluted with water) may suf­fice. In severer cases it becomes necessary to cleanse the throat several times a day with camel’s hair brushes or similar instruments.

After gargling with water or with a solution of carbolic acid (one part to twenty of water) the brush may be swrept over the grayish or brown surfaces, removing any particles that may be easily detached ; after this a clean brush is dipped into a solution of nitrate of silver (twenty grains to the ounce of water) and the ulcerated parts of the throat are penciled with this. These throat cases, too, are often benefited by the application of cold cloths, fre­quently changed, to the neck.

If the fever be very high and mental symptoms prominent, great advantage will often be derived from the wet pack. For this pur­pose a sheet may be wrung out of water having a temperature of 70 degrees F. The patient, divested of all clothing, is wrapped in this sheet, and covered with several blankets. In the course of half an hour or so, the individual is usually perspiring freely, and feels greatly refreshed, and often enjoys tranquilizing sleep. This measure may be executed two or three times daily ; there is no danger of “ driving in the rash,” according to the popular prejudice.

In the severe cases, whether complicated by affections of the throat or not, an important feature of the treatment is the administra­tion of light and nutritious food. The usual fare milk, eggs and broth -must be in such cases supplemented by alcoholics in some form, Egg nog or milk punch. To the same end it is advisable to administer quinine regularly ; for a child of three years the dose may  be one-half to one grain four times a day.

Another indication for treatment in scarlet fever is the itching which so often annoys the patient. A popular, though not especially desirable, remedy consists in lubricating the skin with lard ; a preferable substitute is a solution of glycerine, either in simple water or in rose or cologne water-one part of glycerine to four of rose water.

In cases of mental disturbance-stupor, delirium and convul­sions-the source of the difficulty is often the failure of the kidneys to discharge their functions properly. In such instances the greatest hope of relief lies in brisk purging and in the wet pack. There are cases, too, in which there is no evidence of inflam­mation of the kidneys until after the peeling off-desquamation-has
begun, so that dropsy may become apparent a week or two after the crisis of the disease has passed. This must not, however, be con­sidered as an indication that the patient has taken “ a fresh cold,” for it is usually a portion of the disease itself.

A Sad Time in Oatlands 7 Jillett Children die of Scarlet Fever
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As someone who has had scarlet fever it a horrible illness, and it is any wonder that so many children died.  It seems that the authorities did not quarantine those affected.