Rear of Alderson-street
File Number: FL1137846
The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.
Australia witnessed numerous plague outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. Sydney was first visited by the disease in January 1900 leading to the application of intrusive epidemic control measures (disinfection, quarantine, isolation). Especially affected by these were The Rocks and their wharves which were subjected to quarantine, resumption and demolition (with photographs in this collection capturing this process). The epidemic also led to ground-breaking research in the transmission pathway of the disease. Led by John Ashburton Thompson, this research contributed significantly to our understanding of the role of rats and their fleas in the transmission of the disease.