A Medical Chronology
Posted on August 9, 2017 by Neil Bolitho
Falling ill or suffering injury no matter to what degree, was a serious business. From its humble beginnings as a district hospital, the Omeo District Hospital has grown to a modern health facility.
Below is a medical chronology through Omeo's golden years.
In 1854, an estimated fifty diggers sought their fortunes in the Omeo region.
By 1860, there were approximately six hundred men working on the Livingstone Creek, at what was to become the town of Omeo.
Omeo, circa 1862
The town, once described as the roughest and toughest goldfield in Australia, consisted of a collection of tents and log huts. The Commissioner and his troopers had a few tents and a couple of huts, and the iconic Golden Age Hotel was no more than a log and slab construction with a shingle roof.
Gradually, more people arrived, and buildings, with slab walls and shingle or bark roofs, appeared along the twisting cart track that was to become Day Avenue.
It wasn’t long before the town had stores, hotels, a butcher shop, boarding house, blacksmith, and even a cafe. The Omeo Log Gaol was built.
Omeo's first council meeting was held. The only medical person on the gold field was an unqualified practitioner by the name of Robert J. Fisher. Falling ill or suffering injury no matter to what degree, was a serious business. Following the council meeting, Dr Warren, Omeo's first qualified resident doctor, commenced practise.
Omeo was declared a township on April 7, 1885.
Omeo had no water supply system and no galvanised tanks, with rooftop water being collected in wells. As a result, diseases such as typhoid, scarlet fever and diphtheria were common with many deaths.
The erection of a hospital was proposed, and fund-raising efforts were conducted.
The Public Health Department requested a report on the Omeo Hospital site and also requested that the council form a road to the hospital by the time it was completed. Council agreed.
A site for the proposed hospital was selected, and the Public Health Department requested a report on it, as well as a request that the council form a road to the hospital by the time it was completed. Council agreed.
Dr Diamond took up practice and was appointed Health Officer.
The selected site for the proposed hospital was reserved. The hospital was incorporated on October 19, 1891.
Australia was hit by a recession. The boom had burst. The Omeo Council was caught out with a 5,000 pounds overdraft. To put this into perspective, the cost to build a four bedroom house was 100 pounds.
A motion was put forward in the Omeo Council that no further grants be made to the hospital until the committee provided beds. The committee had their setbacks when the boom burst, and had not been able to find the finance to equip the hospital. The motion was challenged on the grounds that the committee had no chance of finding beds without funds. Eventually 10 pounds was granted.
Dr A.M.Ford and Dr J.L.Henderson were appointed Medical Officers.
Dr J.L.Fenton was appointed Responsible Medical Officer. The hospital had a daily average of three patients.
The Health Dept forwarded plans for a new wing to be built at the Omeo Hospital.
The barn-like structure was completed, but was short of staff, accommodation and conveniences. Most admitted patients were filled more with the fear of death than with the prospects of ever being cured. Dr Fenton resigned as Health Officer, and Dr J.R.Lee, who would later become a Harley St., London, surgeon, was appointed.
Omeo Comedy Club was formed, active for forty years to come. The Hospital funds benefited from their activities. The hospital had accommodation for eight male and six female patients.
After the decline of mining in 1911, the Omeo Hospital was in financial difficulties. The council granted 100 pounds to help keep it open.
Hospitalization was still very primitive, and the local medical officer would not do any surgical work. By the time any urgent cases reached Sale or Bairnsdale, they were in such a state that they were extremely lucky to survive.
No provision was made at the local hospital for maternity cases, these being handled by so-called midwives in their private homes.
A night nurse was employed, with a tent made available as a bedroom for her.
For some years, Omeo had been able to keep two doctors busy. The population had so dwindled that a doctor could not be found to take up the practice.
Public meetings were called in all built-up areas of the Shire, to arrange for a public guarantee that a doctor would be paid a subsidy to practise in the district.
Dr Woinarski eventually took over the practice from Dr Tulloh, but never called on the guarantors; his earnings were evidently satisfactory.
The Public Health Dept ordered that all premises being used as maternity hospitals be registered, and that such premises must comply with the Health Act.
Several women were conducting maternity hospitals in their own homes; one was also receiving patients at the Hilltop Hotel. The Health Dept condemned these arrangements and insisted on the council enforcing the Act.
One private home complied with the conditions of the Act, but had accommodation for only two patients. The problem was beyond the control of the council. Some years later, a maternity wing was established at the hospital, and this solved the problem.
Dr Woinarski resigned as health officer. Dr Luke was appointed. The Shire gave him a guarantee of a minimum income from the practice of 800 pounds per annum.
Dr Luke resigned as M.O. of Health, and Dr McCarthy was appointed.
The total population of the Shire was now 2,369 people, an average of one person per square mile – an all-time low since the Shire had started to function.
The medical officer applied for a guarantee of 800 pounds a year. Dr McCarthy considered the Omeo practice no longer payable. No action was taken. Many people were seeking medical treatment elsewhere and the councillors considered no guarantee was justified.
Staff at the hospital included Matron Trantor and Nurse Doolan. Dr C. Langdon was the medical officer.
Standing: Dr C. Langdon, Matron Tranter, Nurse Doolan,
Front: Dorrie Kracke, ….?…., Zillah Kracke
The Bush Nursing Centres had been operating at Benambra, Swift’s Creek and Ensay districts for several years, and they had provided a very worthwhile service.
Road travel was by no means reliable, and with no ambulance available, a patient often had to wait a whole day before the doctor could arrive.
The bush nurse, although often travelling on horseback, was readily available to give first aid.
With the improvement of the roads and the increasing reliability of motor vehicles resulting in the establishment of an ambulance service, the need of the bush nursing service somewhat diminished.
The Benambra centre eventually closed, but Swift’s Creek and Ensay retained their centres and provided temporary accommodation for patients. These centres also provided facilities for the medical practitioner when he made his regular visits to the districts.
An infectious diseases ward was built on the hospital ground.
No heating arrangements were provided and both patients and nurses suffered from extreme cold during winter.
The walls were constructed of calico and the wind would rock the whole flimsy structure.
Many complaints were lodged by the patients, but the council would not spend the money to improve conditions.
The position was shocking and the patients had to face the ordeal of being cooped up under conditions that could only aggravate their sufferings. The council would demand payment for this treatment.
The building of a maternity wing at the hospital was supported by the council.
The treatment of infectious diseases was still being handled in a very primitive manner. The council paid the hospital committee four shillings per day per patient, the hospital committee finding nurse, food and drugs, etc.
This regrettable lack of consideration for the unfortunate patients took some years to remedy, and the Public Health Dept did nothing to improve the situation.
It was little wonder that most patients refused to pay for the treatment received.
Council faced with shortage of money because of the worldwide recession.
The health inspector’s services were dispensed with and the Medical Officer of Health had his salary cut by 20 pounds.
The first maternity hospital was opened.
It was built on the grounds of the Omeo District Hospital with funds provided under the will of the late John Miller.
The new wing was named the Lady Mitchell wing, and it was the first time in almost a hundred years that such a facility was available in the Shire.
Cr Langdon, the Honorary Medical Officer, reported very adversely on the present accommodation made available by the council for the treatment of infectious diseases.
He urged that the council proceed with a campaign to have all children in the Shire immunized against diphtheria. The result of this drive greatly reduced the incidence of this disease which had been a scourge in the Shire for over sixty years.
Cr. Langdon also urged that an isolation block be constructed of solid materials, and heating and a kitchen block be provided. This proposal was submitted to the Public Works Department, with the request that the funds be made available to proceed with the building.
The Hospital Committee requested that something be done immediately to provide reasonable accommodation for infectious cases, and that a new agreement be drawn up with the council as to payment of treatment costs.
The present rate of 6 shillings per day was inadequate. The hospital had paid travelling expenses and salary for special nurses to care for the recent diphtheria cases, and the average daily bed cost had to been 15 shillings per day. Both staff and patients had complained about the primitive accommodation.
Dr. C.S.B.Langdon gave notice of his intention to retire.
Dr Heard was appointed M.O. to the Shire.
Dr Gordon Little took up practice in Omeo and was appointed M.O. to the Shire.
The Omeo Hospital was completely burned out, including the new infectious diseases wing. Patients and staff were evacuated to the Hilltop Hotel, then under construction, but as yet, without a roof.
Dr Little did a good job and had to work under most difficult circumstances. The chemist shop and hospital being destroyed, he had very limited amounts of drugs and bandages, but somehow he got through a very busy couple of days.
Rev. Regnier offered the Vicarage and Parish Hall as a temporary hospital.
Within twenty-four hours, beds, bedding, boots, clothes, cooking utensils, drugs, bandages, etc., were to hand.
Sister Hodgson, assisted by nurse Murphy, has a temporary hospital functioning, and within a few days had twenty patients housed. These didn’t include fire casualties; they had been evacuated to Bairnsdale.
Yet another effort was required: the Omeo Hospital had to be rebuilt. The secretary, Mr Joe Rennie, who was also the local chemist, had his business premises burnt out and had been hit so hard that he was unable to start up business again. The hospital books were burnt and records destroyed.
Applications were called for the position of secretary, but without success. A.M Pearson resigned the position of president and took over the duties of secretary. Mr T.H.Davison was appointed president and, with the support of a very ken and able committee, the task proceeded.
Leighton Irwin, architect, of Melbourne, drew up plans for the new building; these plans were amended by the president and secretary to suit local conditions and were adopted by the Charities Board.
A site for the new hospital as selected and purchased. When an estimate of costs was received and tenders called, it became apparent that the committee would have to find some thousands of pounds to meet the cost involved. This did not deter the committee from proceeding with the building, and by the time the structure was completed all but 1500 pounds of the total cost of the building, furnishings and equipment was in hand.
A new and modern hospital, together with nurses’ quarters, was officially opened by Mr C.L. McVilley, M.C. Inspector of Charities, early in 1940.
The council was now faced with the task of building another infectious diseases block at the hospital. Because of excessive costs, the work on the buildings was eventually done by day labour, with concrete bricks made in the Shire yard. Some of the heating that involved copper pipes was not completed until after the war.
An Infant Welfare Sister was appointed to the Shire, and eventually Omeo and Tambo Shires combined and a regular infant welfare service was instituted, a sister travelling throughout the remote areas of both shires.
Dr Little resigned and abandoned his practice at Omeo. The Director of Emergency Services appointed Dr Roman Zeeher to set up a practice at Omeo.
A dedicated doctor’s residence was provided by the Omeo Council.
Dr Roman Zeeher resigned as medical officer, and Dr E. Jan was elected to the position.
An ambulance service was started in the Shire, the ambulance being housed at the Omeo Hospital and driven by volunteer drivers.
A new agreement between the council and the hospital committee to treat infectious cases was entered into, the price being 7 pounds, 16 shillings and 3 pence per day.
Omeo Hospital Equipment Fund benefited by 2,000 pounds, and the Omeo Baby Health Centre benefited by 600 pounds, both bequeathed by the late Cr. J.O. Holsten.
Dr Howell resigned as medical officer to the Shire.
Dr J.B. Hawke was appointed medical officer to the Shire.
Dr Hawke resigned as medical officer, and Dr Cantwell was appointed to the position.
Since the resignation of Dr Cantwell, Dr Hansen took up practice after some months delay.
From its humble beginnings as a district hospital, incorporated in 1891, the Omeo District Hospital has grown to a modern health facility, fully renovated and officially opened in December 2005.
Omeo District Health now services an area of 5,567 square kilometres, encompassing Omeo as well as numerous small communities such as Cassilis, Bindi, Benambra, Glen Wills and Anglers Rest.
Echoes From The Mountains by A.M.Pearson
Omeo's Golden Year by Dianne Carroll ISBN: 0 646 183052
Omeo District Health