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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Plague germs in Melbourne

This is out of the normal run of things, but this is too good a yarn not to share.

For reasons that I won't elaborate on here, I have been looking at the bubonic plague outbreak that happened in Sydney at the start of the 20th century, when fast steamers were able to carry plague rats to a number of Pacific and Asian ports.

To get some good background, I started wading through reports from the start of 1897. I read of tick plagues, rabbit plagues, rinderpest, grasshoppers and more, because I had chosen the blunderbuss approach of searching just on plague. Using this method slows things down a bit, but ensures that I don't miss any gems.

I was working in my favourite resource, the Trove digitised newspapers collection at the National Library of Australia, and the 133rd article that I looked at was the one in the clipping on the right (or possibly above, depending on your browser and its settings).  If you want to read on (and I hope you will), here is a link to the whole article.

The skinny: Dr. Haydon had indeed brought back plague bacilli (interestingly, the story uses all three common terms: microbe, bacillus and germ).  He refused to hand them over, as he wanted to carry out experiments.

The authorities found they had no power to seize the bacteria, but then came a twist that W. S. Gilbert would have loved:
Microbes are not dutiable, and there is no law to prevent their importation, but the Secretary of Trade and Customs states that everyone coming to the colony is technically bound to report everything in his possession. Mr. Williams, at the interview with Dr. Wollaston, suggested that an officer of the Customs Department should be sent to seize the germs, and that Dr. Haydon, instead of being compensated; should be prosecuted for secretly importing the germs of a horribly dangerous disease.
Mr. Williams favored desperate measures, but as soon as Dr. Wollaston heard that the microbes had been imported in gelatine, he saw his opportunity to proceed in a legal manner, for gelatine is subject to a duty of 3d per lb, and, as Dr. Haydon had not paid the duty, the department was entitled to seize the gelatine; Mr. Williams gleamed with satisfaction, and Dr. Wollaston hastened to give effect to his intention.
And so it came to pass, in due course, that Detective-Inspector Christie, expert seizer and destroyer of illicit whisky stills, contraband cigars and the like, hastened off with Dr. Gray, seized the vile bugs and promptly consigned them to the fire.

Naturally, I suspected a leg-pull, but there was wide coverage over many years. Dr. Haydon was apparently Dr. Leonard G. Haydon.  Moreover, he had discussed his actions with officers of the Public Health Department, and they had seen the cultures.

Haydon offered a spirited defence of his actions in The Argus on November 14, and by his explanation and after tracing has later career (my search in Trove was on Haydon AND plague), I conclude that Haydon was in the right and the authorities were in full knee-jerk panic mode.

In fairness, there had been an outbreak in Vienna in the previous month, when several staff at a medical institute died of bubonic plague, and the method of transmission was yet to be worked out, so the fear was understandable.

But nothing can take away from the ploy about unpaid gelatine duties. What a pity only three other reports mention that aspect of the yarn.

Oh dear!  I think I may have been taken in by a bit of journalistic embellishment, corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Remind me again: who was it that said that?

Addendum: after many years in South Africa, Leonard Guscote Haydon retired to Australia and died in 1941. Here is a link to an obituary.

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