Medical Treatment, 1841:
Events surrounding the quarantine of the bounty ship New York Packet, which arrived from Glasgow on 23 October 1841 with 244 immigrants on board, demonstrated the vulnerability of the immigrants to infectious diseases before the causes of diseases and the methods of transmission were discovered. Fifteen days from departure, a two-year-old child developed a mild case of smallpox. Although the ship’s surgeon. Dr J. Aitken, a Hcentiate of the College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, knew that smallpox was a contagious disease, he considered that the disease was not ‘as likely to be caught from one slightly, as from one seriously affected’ and so, in all but three cases, allowed his patients to remain in their berths amongst the other immigrants. As a result fifteen people became infected with smallpox, of whom three died.
When the vessel arrived in Port Jackson, Aitken reported that although smallpox had been prevalent early in the voyage, the passengers were totally free from disease with the exception of a few cases of influenza. As a precaution, the Port’s Health Officer, Dr A. Savage, quarantined the ship for cleansing.
Within three days, the reports of sickness on the Healthy Ground were so troubling that Naval Surgeon T.R. Dunn was sent from Sydney to investigate. He found the immigrants ‘in a filthy and disgraceful state of discipline’, and he observed with alarm that many people who were suffering from a disease of a ‘well marked
febrile character’ were mixing freely with healthy people. The disease, which he diagnosed as typhus fever, spread rapidly through the Station infecting more than 80 people and killing eight adults and one child.
Typhus fever is spread by lice, and both in this and some other quarantines it seemed puzzling that there should have been an outbreak of typhus fever on arrival at the Station, but not during the long voyage. In the opinion of a board of enquiry, the disease was present but undiagnosed during the voyage of the New York Packet. In a letter to Governor Gipps on 14 February 1842, Dr Aitken maintained that the Station’s hospital was the source of infection since it had not been cleansed following the removal of the Eleanors typhus fever cases some days earlier.” However, his claim was rejected. His plea for payment for his services during the voyage was also rejected, throwing him into a state of penury.
One of the most potent weapons in the fight to improve conditions on the immigrant ships was the withholding of payment to ship masters who breached charter-party agreements, and to surgeon-superintendents whose performance was considered to be unsatisfactory. The board’s report indicated that it was making an example of Aitken, whose moral conduct during the voyage was unimpeached but whose performance was judged to be inadequate, in order to draw attention to ‘a most culpable want of care in the selection of surgeons-superintendent'on a number of immigrant ships.
from: "In quarantine : a history of Sydney's quarantine station, 1828-1984" on the Internet Archives at https://archive.org/stream/b28150818/b28150818_djvu.txt (page 39 & 40)
NRS5316/4_4782/New York Packet_23 Oct 1841/ from the Assisted Immigrants (digital) Shipping Lists on the New South Wales State Archives and Records website at: http://indexes.records.nsw.gov.au/ebook/list.aspx?series=NRS5316&item=4_4782&ship=New%20York%20Packet
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