One hundred years ago a young nurse volunteered to care for soldiers returning from the Great War being held in quarantine. While performing her nursing duties Nurse Annie Egan contracted one of the most deadly diseases of modern times - the Spanish 'Flu - which was brought back home by the returning soldiers. A week later she was dead.
Picture 1: Nurse Annie Egan. Photo: Eternity News.
The Spanish flu had spread so rapidly across the globe that all boats filled with returning soldiers from the Great War to Australia had no choice but to be quarantined. In just 18 months at least a third of the world’s population was infected with the virus . Estimates on the exact number of fatalities vary wildly, from 20 million to 50 million to 100 million deaths. If the upper end of that estimate is accurate, the 1918 pandemic killed more people than both World Wars put together.
What was different about Annie's case was the way she died. Annie had only been a nurse for a few months when she volunteered to work at the quarantine station, effectively working on the front line of the impending advancement of the disease towards Australia.
Annie would have known she had contracted the 'flu when she started experiencing the first same symptoms she had seen in the soldiers. She would have started with a headache and back pain, before experiencing a temperature and light sensitivity.
Picture 2: Protective gear at the time of the Spanish Flu. Photo: Forgotten Australia
As the symptoms worsened and death drew near, Annie turned to her faith for comfort. A devout Catholic, she begged her superior to send a priest to her, for confession and to administer last rites. She was refused by the Acting Minister for Customs, Mr Massey Greene. Even when a local priest at nearby Manly offered to attend the dying nurse, he was still refused.
After Annie's death, Catholic groups across the country protested what they saw as a denial of her basic rights, in relation to her faith. From Cowra to Lismore, from Sydney to Melbourne, bishops, priests and the lay population moved motions to protest the actions of the Federal Government. The protests came to a peak when Archbishop Michael Kelly labelled Annie a martyr.
After receiving no reply from Acting Prime Minister William Watt, the Archbishop went to the quarantine station himself. He demanded admission so he could minister to the sick.
He was refused entry by armed soldiers and threatened with arrest. While he didn't gain access to the quarantine station, the Archbishop highlighted the issue of the spiritual needs of the patients. Shortly after that the government backed down and patients were allowed to have priests attend them when needed.
Picture 3: The headstone memorial of Nurse Annie Egan at Sydney's quarantine station. Photo: austcemindex
In honour of her selfless work, Nurse Egan received a funeral with full military honours. The firing party was provided by soldiers in quarantine and the service was held by Nurse Williams, in lieu of a priest.
* 'Spanish Influenza', The Evening Echo, Wednesday, 27th November, 1918, Page 1
https://www.eternitynews.com.au/australia/the-nurse-who-fought-spanish-flu-and-outraged-australia/, accessed 29th March, 2020
* 'Inside the swift, deadly history of the Spanish Flu pandemic', National Geographic History Magazine, Toby Saul, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2018/03-04/history-spanish-flu-pandemic/, accessed 28th March, 2020.
* ' Late Nurse Egan', The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 6 December 1918, Page 7
* 'Nurse Egan's Case', The Catholic Press, Thursday, 12 December 1918, Page 23
* 'Forgotten Australia', podcast by Michael Adams, https://forgottenaustralia.com/tag/annie-egan/, accessed 29th March, 2020.