While we face these challenging and unsettling times, some of us may find it helpful to reflect upon similar challenges faced by the College during past pandemics and epidemics. Covid-19 is not the first virus we have had to deal with, and there is some suggestion from experts that it won’t be the last. But if history is anything to go by, having a strong community and looking out for one another, goes a long way in overcoming the difficulties.
The College’s Archives hold numerous items, some of which provide light into what past pandemics and epidemics were like. The first health crisis to make a mark within the MLC Archives is that of the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic. This pandemic emerged at the end of World War One when the College was only in its 36th
year. Cases were first reported in Spain in 1918 and with returning soldiers coming home following the end of the war, Australia started seeing cases in early 1919.
The end of year Report from the President and Headmaster
in 1918 noted that the College maintained high standards of health throughout the year. Vigilant oversight of this was taken up by Lady Superintendent, Miss Ada Fitchett (niece to the then President, Rev Dr William Henry Fitchett). The report states “no single case of serious sickness occurred during the year. Perhaps nowhere else indeed in Australia could be found such a great household of bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked girl-life as in the M.L.C”.
The same report in 1919 noted a rather different story.
It opens by saying that the College continued in good spirit despite the challenges being faced. Schools were not allowed to open until May of that year, which required students and teachers to make up for lost time by working through the term holidays. The President, Dr Fitchett, noted that “the M.L.C. took most vigilant care, making the school one of the most lightly touched or affected schools in the state”. The Headmaster, Mr Le Couteur, described the College as “rising to the occasion and challenges with loyalty and good humour, and went about its work almost as usual”.
The student magazine, The Silver and Green
, also informs us of the impact the Spanish Flu Pandemic was having on students in 1919. The form reports from each year level note periods of absences from their Form Mistresses, Form Captains, or peers. The Boarder’s section highlights their struggle of not being allowed to go out on weekends. Sporting events were cancelled, School Day was cancelled, and all camps were postponed.
Society had to adapt its day-to-day lifestyle. Just as we are now getting use to leaving the house with masks or face-coverings in addition to our usual items, the same was promoted during the Spanish Flu Pandemic, as shown in the sketch below from The Australasian.
While there were three waves of the Spanish Flu, things did slowly return to normal and by the end of 1920 in the Report from the President and Headmaster,
once again said there was “no single case of illness during the year”. But the events of the previous year had left a mark on the College, as can be seen from the revised ideals for 1920.
“1) Health, without which good work is impossible. 2) Discipline, without which there can be no orderly and continuous study. 3) Concentration and earnestness of spirit, without which sustained progress is impossible”.
The second health crisis that really makes it mark within the Archives is that of the Polio Epidemics in Australia, occurring periodically from 1937 to the mid 1950s. This virus also had a severe impact on society with houses requiring fumigation, people placed in quarantine, and many families ostracized.
The Polio Epidemic impacted M.L.C. the most during 1949. Then, just as much as it is emphasized today, people were urged to take responsibility for their own actions and be considerate of others. The students of the day fully embraced this spirit and the editorial from the end of year Silver and Green
stated “each of us must be sure that she is doing her best, for it is only by doing this that we can succeed, and if we are careless, we may be in the means of letting down those who are depending on us”.
During this health crisis the College decided to shift assemblies outdoors. This was in the hope that fresh air would prevent transmission amongst the students. There must have been several complaints, especially once the winter months arrived, but the Silver and Green
tells us only of the positive spin the student’s placed upon this challenge, saying “it only rained once and our voices have certainly improved in range”.
But things are rather different in 2020 with the Covid-19 Pandemic. We have been able to adapt in ways that were not possible during past pandemics or epidemics. We can continue to teach and learn from the safety of our homes thanks to the advances in technology, meaning there is no need to work through term holidays to catch up. We can watch assemblies from the comforts of our homes, meaning there is no need to stand outside in the cold. We can even participate in online programs so that experiences like sport and music classes are not entirely missed.
What is also different, at least from an Archives point of view, is that record keeping practices have also advanced. We are much more aware of the importance of documenting history now, as it happens, so that future generations can have an even better picture of what occurred during this health crisis than any of those that have happened before. The Archives are currently collecting all emails, notices, posters and online content to show what was communicated and how we have adapted to this challenge. The Archives have also been in a position to ask for student and staff submissions or reflections to capture the personal impacts this pandemic has had on the community.
As history shows, we have overcome many similar challenges like those we face today. By reflecting on these past experiences, I hope that we can all appreciate that we are in a fortunate position and are a part of a community that has a practice of making the most of difficult situations, and supporting one another as best we can.
Written by Stacey Coenders, College Archivist