On 19th January 1900 a carman regularly employed in carrying goods from the city warehouses in Sydney to Central Wharf, fell ill with a disease subsequently found to be the bubonic form of plague.
The danger of its arriving in Sydney had been present since May 1894, when the disease reached the seaport of Hong Kong. In 1899 Mauritius, Japan, Honolulu and New Caledonia had all become infected.
In the view of Dr Ashburton Thompson, Superintendent of the Coast Hospital, the disease was introduced by infected rats who passed the disease on to the local rats, but from which port and on which ship there is no evidence. The first four human cases were all undoubtedly infected within a small area around the wharfs but there were no measures available to prevent rats leaving overseas ships when they tied up at Sydney ports.
Between January and August 1900, 303 cases of plague were reported in New South Wales with a mortality of 30 per cent. These cases were treated at the North Head Quarantine Station, to which thirteen of the Coast Hospital’s most experienced nurses were sent for nursing duty, together with four ambulance drivers. The Coast staff remained at the Quarantine Station for eight months.
When this outbreak died down so, apparently, did the epizootic in rats.