Convict ailments

In the 1830s, convict patients at the General ‘Rum’ Hospital suffered from a range of injuries, infections and other illness resulting from hard labour, poor hygiene and for some, a poor diet. They had infections such as dysentery, diarrhoea, otitis (ear infection), phthisis (tuberculosis) and pneumonia; scurvy (vitamin C deficiency); eye problems such as cataracts, nyctalopia (blindness) and ophthalmia (conjunctivitis); and injuries and inflammation such as pleuralgia (inflammation of the muscles between the ribs), pleuritis (lung inflammation) and dropsy (swelling of body tissue).

In 1838 and in 1841 there were eight cases of leprosy, and a severe influenza epidemic in 1838 caused fatalities of 14.3 per cent of the hospital population. This was treated by administering powerful emetics (to induce vomiting), and new therapies were also introduced such as electrotherapy and mercury injections.

In the days before ambulances, carts and wheelbarrows served as useful means of conveying the ill and injured to the Rum Hospital. In one sad case, reported in the Sydney Monitor of October 1836, a convict woman named Jane Quigley died in a ‘miserable hut’ on the Botany Road, two days before the cart from the hospital arrived to collect her, and eight days after it had been called for. A bushranger named Somerfield, who had been bitten by a snake in Woolloomooloo, was also brought to the hospital on a cart. He’d previously cut the flesh out as well as he could with his pocketknife, to prevent the venom from spreading.

For some, the hospital became a place of permanent residence. Some patients as young as 26 years old stayed long periods while suffering chronic bronchitis, paralysis and ‘lameness’. One blind patient was resident there for 20 years.