Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis in some form might have existed before the Aborigines came (as Gondwanaland mycobacteria). After colonisation, the disease established itself throughout the world, although some commentators claimed that the local climate was a prophylactic. Tuberculosis killed some Aborigines, the precise incidence uncertain.

Probably throughout the island's entire European history, overall death-rates were declining. However from the later nineteenth century the improvement was less than elsewhere in Australia, while non-pulmonary rates rose. After Robert Koch's identification of the tuberculosis bacillus in 1882, calls strengthened for counter-action. The then-favoured responses of absolute rest and exposure to fresh air prevailed at the small sanatoriums established in 190607 at New Town, Hobart, and (by Dr WH Tofft) at Campbell Town. The former supported by both government and philanthropy continued the chief site of remedial efforts, from 1920 led by Dr TH Goddard.

AG Ogilvie's government (193439) and its successors encouraged such work, as did federal governments of the 1940s. From 1947 operated the Northern Chest Hospital, near Perth. Tasmanian pressures helped shape the federal Act of 1948 that gave states decisive financial aid. Next year compulsory X-rays began in Tasmania, an expression of popular and political commitment against the scourge. Relative prosperity and better housing further impelled improvement, but decisive change came fastest through new drugs of the 1950s. Their local effect was probably enhanced by earlier anti-tuberculosis work. Notification rates fell below the Australian average in the 1960s; partly because of Tasmania's small immigration, by 1991 the death-rate ranked with the world's lowest.

Further reading: M Roe, Life over death, Hobart, 1999.

Michael Roe