Etched in stone: Cemeteries reveal a typhoid history

These days, typhoid deaths in Australia are just about non-existent. Typhoid fever is a contagious bacterial infection, spread mainly through faecally contaminated food and water. The good news is that it’s been able to be controlled by vaccination. However, it was a very different story in years gone by.  

Few cemeteries don’t have a typhoid story to tell

Tens of millions of people have died from this disease and thousands continue to do so, particularly in developing countries. Here in Australia, you’ll have trouble finding older cemeteries that don’t contain evidence of typhoid deaths.

Menzies is a small town 130km north of Kalgoorlie and 730km north east of Perth. Poor sanitation led to a deadly outbreak of Typhoid in 1895. Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims.

Between 1895 and 1905, at least 105 people buried at Menzies are thought to have died from typhoid. Most victims were men aged 20-40 years old.

Dozens of young, fit men died of typhoid in the WA gold mining town of Menzies in the late 1890s. David Watson was 28.
Twenty-eight of the 42 known burials at the Menzies cemetery in 1896 were typhoid victims

Several hundred kilometres away at Southern Cross, a similar story is told with typhoid featuring prominently in the cemetery’s cause of death list.

Many, many people died of typhoid fever in Australia in the late 1890s.

Typhoid wiped out families

But typhoid wasn’t just prevalent in outback in Australia. It was a global threat. I came across this grave in Cromwell, a town on New Zealand’s South Island during my travels a few years ago.

Four Scally children died within one month from typhoid in 1874. They were 7, 6, 5 and 3. One year later, their mother Ellen and sibling Margaret (almost a year old) died from the same disease. Ellen was 29.

Four Scally children died of typhoid in one month. Their mother and sibling died of typhoid a year later. (Read more about interesting graves at Cromwell here.)

The vaccine that changed history

Thankfully, a vaccine was developed by a British pathologist called Almroth Edward Wright. Initially the vaccine was used in the military from 1896. Before then, soldiers at war were more likely to be killed by typhoid than in combat. 

The vaccine was further developed by a German bacteriologist Richard Pfeiffer and instances of typhoid fever have declined astronomically thanks to the introduction of vaccinations and improvements in public sanitation and hygiene.

About the author

Author Lisa Herbert

Lisa Herbert is a death awareness advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist, and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan – an informative, modern, and quirky workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The third edition is available in Australia for $29.95.  For international buyers, The Bottom Drawer eBook is AU$12.99 on Apple Books, Kobo, Booktopia and Google Books. To purchase, click HERE.

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