Carl Dugdale, A Phenomenal Dust-storm at Narrandera, New South Wales (detail), between 1900 and 1915
Recording date:

Dr Rebecca Jones examines how European settlers and colonisers struggled to cope with Australia's extreme weather events.

Dr Rebecca Jones is a National Library Fellow supported by Deidre McCann and Kevin McCann AM, and the Macquarie Group Foundation.

Speakers: Martin Woods (M), Rebecca Jones (R)

Audience: (A)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 26 April 2018

M:        Welcome to the National Library. For those who have never been here to the theatre and apologies for change in venue but it’s such a wonderful audience that we had to upgrade Rebecca’s talk which is starting to become something – a thing around the fellows’ talks of late so we’re really pleased to see you all here tonight. So welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m the Curator of Maps here and it’s my pleasure to welcome you to our third fellowship presentation for 2018 and to introduce you to our guest speaker, Dr Rebecca Jones. And as we begin I’d like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and pay my respect to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Nganbury people past and present.

Rebecca was awarded the 2018 National Library of Australia Fellowships supported by Deirdre and Kevin McCann and the Macquarie Group Foundation for her evocatively titled research project, Crazy Weather. I'm sure that’s what’s attracted you all. It’s a concept which immediately resonates in these changing climes when it’s difficult to know what to expect and as a regular bicycle commuter I'm enjoying the generally favourable and positive effects of wearing shorts still into late April ‘though I know it will end soon.

My personal comfort reference is a weak segue to Rebecca’s strengths. Rebecca is a historian who combines climate and environment with rural health and wellbeing. Most recently in her book, Slow Catastrophes, Living with Drought in Australia, published by Monash University Publishing last year and you might be able to obtain a signed copy afterwards in the foyer this evening. Rebecca comes to us via Monash University where she was Senior Research Fellow in the School of Rural Health and before that from ANU where she was a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of History and Centre for Environmental History. Rebecca is a graduate of both Melbourne and Monash Universities, the latter where she completed her PhD on the history of organic gardening in Australia.

Prior to her doctoral research Rebecca worked as a public historian for heritage agencies, community groups, Museum Victoria, archives and local government. Rebecca’s historical gaze is never far from the earth so you can see, and natural farming methods, soil microbes, compost, possums, quandongs, bushfires, drought, pestilence – no, not pestilence. The environment and its human interrelationships are at the nub of her writing and research. Rebecca’s current investigation into the physical and emotional effects of climate extremes has dug into most of the Library’s collecting strata, books, newspapers, manuscripts, pictures, maps, oral histories and much more. With a focus on the records of the Australian Inland Mission as it was known under the Presbyterian Church to 1977. Now this collection is not for the fainthearted so I’m told. Spanning 113 and a bit metres or 535 boxes the archive has the distinction of being one of the heftiest manuscript collections in the Library. Lucky Rebecca.

I particularly enjoyed assisting her unearth some hard to find maps material and I’m very much looking forward to hearing more about what she’s found in the AIM Collection this evening and please welcome Rebecca.


R:        Thank you very much, Martin, for that lovely introduction. And I’d also like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people and paying my respects to their elders. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of central Australia which – about which I'm speaking today.

I’m very grateful to the National Library for the opportunity to participate in this Fellowship. It has been a real privilege and a fantastic opportunity. Thank you to Deirdre and Kevin McCann and the Macquarie Group Foundation who supported this Fellowship and also thank you to the staff of the National Library who’ve given such fabulous support and who are impressively helpful, professional, competent, can-do kind of people. And thank you all for coming tonight.

I’ll be showing a lot of images as I go through this talk. Most of them come from the Australian Inland Mission Collection. In fact I think all but one of them. Most of them are not dated in the collection but I know that all of the ones I’m showing tonight are before 1951 and where there’s dates I’ve tried to include them in there. So let’s begin.

So travelling in inland Australia required preparation for all contingencies as you can see from this slide. Lurching between dry, wet, cold, heat and so much dust. Temperatures of 49 degrees for days left people wilting and fragile and many people travelled by night to avoid the searing heat. And yet the sundrenched inland can also be cold, enough to give people chilblains.

Surging floodwaters can turn landscapes to massive seas causing travellers to detour many miles or in this case halt their journey. And when floods retreated and the plains became green with newly growing grass and the sandhills came alive with red, yellow, white and purple flowers. And then with absolutely no rain falling for months, even years sometimes, the land became cripplingly dry. The road between Birdsville and Marree pictured here was described by one traveller as 200 miles where the only thing that one sees are the remains of animals that have perished in the drought. And with the drought came insidious blinding sandstorms which enveloped buildings and inveigled its way into the ears, eyes, nose, mouth of people and here we see people eating their Christmas dinner under a cloth to stop too much sand entering their mouths.

So weather is a mantle that envelops us but it’s not simply a backdrop to our lives, it’s also an agent in individual lives and in history. When we read about the past, even perhaps when we view photographs we sometimes forget that living in the past was a bodily experience. People then, as now, experienced the world through their bodies and their senses. And arid Australia in the past was a very sensual experience. People more so than now had fewer opportunities to insulate themselves and control the weather. The environment not only affected their bodies but of course it also affected their minds. Through the permeable fuzzy boundary between mind and body it deeply affected their emotions and even at times their psychological wellbeing.

This experience in the first half of the 20th century is what has preoccupied me in the last two-and-a-half months during this Fellowship. Extreme weather, when conditions step outside the normal, is when the effects on people are the greatest and the pointy end of historical experience which can have a lasting legacy. Meteorologically central Australia is considered to be a particularly variable climate. But for coastal people all weather in central Australia is extreme.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries arid Australia was, and arguably still is, a frontier of unsettlement. Unlike Aboriginal people of central Australia who were intricately adapted to this land and climate British and European settlers were individually and culturally relatively new to central Australia and were still in the process of finding their way and adapting. And therefore it’s this people who I focused on in my experience although I have also looked where possible for comparisons with the experience of Aboriginal people of this area.

But first let me just step aside briefly from the weather and talk a little bit about the Australian Inland Mission or the AIM as it was called. The papers of the Australian Inland Mission here at the National Library are a very large collection, as Martin mentioned, of manuscripts, images, maps, objects and oral history and they’ve provided me with a fantastic window through which to explore settler colonial experiences of extreme weather. What they were experiencing, the effects on their health and emotions and who they adapted.

The AIM was established in 1912, auspiced by the Presbyterian Church of Australia. It was the brainchild of John Flynn but it was actually based on a model which began with the appointment of a nurse at Oodnadatta in 1907 following the lobbying of an earlier Minister, Minister Francis Rowland. The AIM is of course best known for the Flying Doctors which were established by Flynn in 1928 or the Aerial Medical Service as it was known until 1939. Despite the publicity and glamour of the Aerial Medical Services the heart of the AIM, literally and metaphorically, was a network of nursing homes or nursing centres and I’ll talk about the word home a bit later, throughout remote South Australia, Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia. By 1939 these nursing centres numbered about 14, exactly 14 and here’s a map of their location.

Nurses were appointed in pairs for a two-year term. They were responsible for a huge geographic area attending to the health of the people of the inland through outpatient clinics, inpatient beds, home visits as well as dispensing medicine and medical supplies. But these nursing centres were far more than health clinics. The mission of AIM was what we might today call holistic health. Supported by roving Ministers of religion and doctors their role was to nurture the health, spiritual and social needs of bush settlers in central Australia.

Nurses came from many Christian persuasions and the religious philosophy of the AIM was more Christian humanitarian than denominational or evangelical. This was a philosophy which caused some controversy within the Church but was fought for doggedly by supervisor, John Flynn and his successor, Fred McKay. Nurses were expected to actively participate in the life of the community. They organised social events such as carnivals, Christmas parties, women’s groups, children’s activities and even conducted burial services when required.

Today we tend to associate missions in central Australia with evangelising and western education of indigenous people however the mission of the Australian Inland Mission was primarily, and in later years again controversially, about supporting and nurturing European settlement in remote Australia.

Until the mid-1930s nurses did not routinely record if patients were Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal ‘though nurses’ diaries and correspondence show that Aboriginal people were treated by the AIM nurses, usually free of charge. From the mid-1930s patient records were usually divided into – and I quote here – white, Aboriginal or half-caste and half-caste included anyone who was not British, Irish or northern European so that included Afghans, Malays, Italians and Syrians. Probably about one-fifth of the patients that I’ve estimated in that period were Aboriginal in the southern nursing centres with a higher percentage I think further north.

Aboriginal people are a presence in the records of the AIM, albeit a presence without a voice. There are photographs, mention of Aboriginal workers on pastoral stations, transport teams as guides and in town camps. In an oral history account by Aboriginal people of Oodnadatta in 1980s, and that’s not part of the Australian Inland Mission collection although it is in the Library here, some recall that interaction between AIM staff was limited to mutually wary occasional treatment and shy excursions fishing, swimming or riding in the car.

As my interest is principally in arid climates I have focused on four particular nursing centres of the Australian Inland Mission. Oodnadatta in far north South Australia. Nursing commenced here out of a room at the hotel in 1907 with a nursing centre opening in 1912 and that’s the centre there. Beltana near the Flinders Ranges which opened in 1919, Birdsville in far western Queensland. This opened in 1923 and ironically for a Presbyterian organisation the first nursing home pictured here was in a dilapidated former pub. And the final nursing station that I focus on is Innamincka on the South Australian Queensland border at Cooper Creek which was purpose-built for the AIM in 1924. And there’s a map which show you Oodnadatta, Birdsville, Innamincka and Beltana.

So let’s go back to the weather. And health and how it affected people in the inland at the time. Patient records of these four nursing homes show that nurses treated a very large range of conditions. There were many injuries and in this pre-antibiotic era many of these became seriously infected. There was also infectious diseases, measles and such like, tuberculosis, teeth extractions, and the nurses did a lot of them, maternity issues, colds, influenza and arthritis among many other things that they treated. But I’ve also identified a range of conditions which the nurses treated associated with or exacerbated by extreme weather. Eye and gastric problems, heat exhaustion, sunburn, chilblains, drowning – not sure you can treat that – vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever and psychological problems.

In the longer term I’m quantifying and mapping these conditions but tonight I’ll speak about three of perhaps what I think are the most interesting of these conditions. As I’m discussing them I’m using the diagnoses and terms used at the time, not retrospective assessments on my part although I have of course found the understandings of past illness by contemporary health professionals as well as medical historians to be useful.

So water and foodborne gastric problems were amongst the commonest causes of treatment at the nursing homes. Flooding brought outbreaks of gastric diseases as pollutants swept into drinking water and bathing sources such as waterholes and cesspits overflowed. Drought also increased the number of people treated at nursing homes. Clean sources of water such as tanks dried, bores in many parts of the inland were not palatable for human drinking due to their high mineral content and people were forced to rely on increasingly stagnant and polluted multipurpose waterholes as you can see here.

Sister Grace Francis of Birdsville wrote in her diary in 1924, the water from the town hole is thick and not good to drink. There’s a dead horse which is not the most pleasant thing at the end of the waterhole. Five of us womenfolk burnt it although the men tell us the floodwaters will not reach it. Still the carcass is in the main channel of the town hole and prefer to be certain about it.

Police attempted to enforce public health, ordering residents to boil drinking water during drought but they were not always very successful in that. And without refrigerators and freezers in extreme heat, wet and dry – extreme heat, wet and dry, residents of inland Australia often had problems getting fresh food. Birdsville nurses wrote, we find it hard to get up a meal. Mr Lee sent a bag of meat but unfortunately the sun smiled on it with a vengeance and we had to consign it to the rubbish heap.

During drought goats’ milk also became hard to procure as the animals were starving and stopped producing milk. Just hate the jolly old tin cow, a nurse remarked. When green vegetables were scarce Grace Francis’ nursing companion, Sister Boyd, ate a palatable-looking green succulent which she found by the river but which made her sick for three days.

One of the severe gastric complaints suffered by AIM patients was Barcoo Fever, also attractively known as Barcoo Spew. Barcoo Fever was fairly common amongst non-Aboriginal Australians in the arid inland but was rare amongst Aboriginal people. Symptoms included fever, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea and in the worst cases seizure and respiratory failure. During the 19th and most of the 20th century the course of Barcoo Fever was not well-known. Barcoo’s an Aboriginal word with various different translations and it was the name given by Europeans to the river which rises in the western flanks of the Great Dividing Range and flows into the Cooper Creek. There's a map of Queensland and I’ve marked what we know as the Barcoo River which is there but along here which is what we now call Cooper Creek was on various maps also called the Barcoo so you can see it clearly divides what’s known as remote from less remote Queensland.

In settler colonial Australian language beyond the Barcoo represented the far outback. There are many examples of this association in Australian literature and music. Henry Kendall composed a poem in 1962 about the far outback called The Barcoo. Henry Lawson of course wrote ‘Twixt the Ocean and the Barcoo, delineating extremes. Banjo Paterson wrote On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few. And a bush song from the 1930s called On The Far Barcoo begins in the far Barcoo where they eat nardoo 1,000 miles away. So Barcoo was synonymous with remote, on the edge, beyond civilisation. And yet there was more sickness on the Barcoo. Barcoo also had a rot. Barcoo Rot or Barcoo sores were persistent superficial ulcerous skin lesions – and I won’t show you a photograph of them – mainly in exposed areas of the hands and arms and they were quite common in hot sandy regions of Australia. They were thought at the time to be connected to what was called Felt Disease in South Africa.

In the 19th century Barcoo Rot was thought to be the same as scurvy but by the 1930s doctors were associating it with bacteria which entered the skin, mainly through cuts or abrasions. Again Aboriginal people seemed to experience the disease less than Europeans and Afghans.

Various patent medicines were sold to treat Barcoo Rot but doctors suggested that the main method of prevention was scrupulous attention to cleanliness of person and house combined with fresh food and fresh air. All were rather difficult to procure in parts of Australia where water was scarce, travel was slow and dust storms were frequent.

Being on the Barcoo then, remote and beyond civilisation, was also then associated with sickness and being beyond the outer limits was potentially an unhealthy experience. The third health issue which I’d like to discuss is the emotional and psychological effects of extreme weather. These are variously described in AIM nursing records as nervous debility, nervous exhaustion, nervous breakdown, nerves, depression, emotional collapse, neurosis and [neurothenia] 22:15. I’ve identified at least 81 of these cases in patient records in the 1930s and ‘40s from my four nursing homes. Interestingly probably the greatest insight into the psychological effects of extreme weather can be found amongst the staff of the AIM themselves.

Letters written by nurses reveal the increasing desperation which some nurses felt if their term was to extend beyond a second or third summer. Let me read to you from a letter written by Nurse Kitty Campbell to Miss Baird who was the nurses’ main contact person at the AIM. In February 1932 towards the end of her two-year term in Birdsville. And I quote, we are not feeling very fit, we have had a terrible time with the heat and bad food. Sister Fanshaw had a very bad gastric attack. I would have asked to be relieved only I know I could not face the journey out. I’m just longing to get some cool green spot and rest. The temperature in the day here is now 107 which is about 42 Celsius. That is bearable to what we have had. It takes a very strong person to stand up to two summers out here, I think.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the psychological effects of extreme weather is the story of Reverend Bruce Ploughman. In 1913 at the age of 27 Ploughman succeeded John Flynn as Patrol Padre, first at Beltana and then at Oodnadatta. His patrol extended over 1,200km north to Tennant Creek, some 200km south and two to 300km east and west. So Bruce Ploughman’s patrol is roughly – this map’s from 1952 but it corresponded roughly with what’s in this map called Central Patrol so you can see what enormous area he was responsible for, based at Oodnadatta. And over here is a little hand-drawn map he drew of his travels between Oodnadatta down there, called Ood, and Alice Springs at the top.

Bruce Ploughman and his camel team was almost continually on the move. 2,300 miles of travelling between April and September, he noted one year. He travelled through some of the hottest, driest, sandiest and most sparsely populated country in Australia staying with settlers or sleeping in the open. He noted that sometimes in winter his – the bedding around him froze. And that’s some of the sleeping quarters that the Padres experienced and that’s a lantern slide so that’s why it’s become cracked.

As he travelled Bruce Ploughman attended the spiritual, social and even health needs of settlers, bearing in mind he’s a Reverend, not a doctor. He held church services, marriage ceremonies, visited lonely people, mended furniture, pulled teeth, nursed sick and listened and advised those in difficulty. In order to demonstrate he was not above earthly concerns he worked alongside settlers mustering or mending fences. In effect he did whatever was needed.

In the letters he sent to his fiancé he explains the conditions he worked under. And I quote from Bruce, it has been very warm and dry and as the houses I’ve [lie] 25:54 in, I feel it a little uncomfortable and early rising is necessary to avoid the discomfort of trying to rest in overheated rooms. If we sleep outside of course, can’t stay in bed once the sun is up.

Ploughman’s life oscillated between extreme isolation, not seeing a soul for six days, he writes, interspersed with periods of over-sociability when his attention was in continual demand as each place he went to he was the newcomer and the visitor. Towards the end of his five-year term he wrote after four years’ experience I can say that it is a positive hardship to have no place where one can get away from town folk of Oodnadatta for even a little quietness.

Ploughman felt his responsibilities acutely. He writes to his fiancé, the men are asking for me to come up, I must go if I can. He also felt he was often dealing with situations, particularly in the medical realm, which were well beyond his expertise. We witness his slow decline in his letters, insomnia, excessive fatigue, anxiety and overreaction to small provocations. He writes a kitten upset me, he got on the table during prayers. I had to put her out after the Lord’s Prayer but I was pretty well upset by then.

The uncharacteristic anger and alienation he had begun to feel towards the AIM at the end of his five-year term is clear in a letter he wrote to the AIM. In this letter he demands that, and again I quote, the Board’s method of addressing its agents through its letters be altered to allow for something approaching the personal element taking the place for the hard and colourless strictly business style usually adopted. Your agent may be a Dear Sir but he is also very often a tired and dispirited human being and it doesn’t help him any to be addressed in the conventional style adopted for patent pills.

Bruce Ploughman was diagnosed with nerves and weakened heart by doctors at the end of his stint for the AIM. Ploughman himself wrote in the back of his 1917 diary, and you can see that on the right of the screen, some – and he wrote this some 40 years later when – probably when he donated his diary to the Australian Inland Mission. He wrote unable to finish diary owing to getting a nervous breakdown accompanied by insomnia. Reverend Partridge came north to Bloods Creek and we travelled back to Oodnadatta together. You probably can’t read that there but it’s down there in the scrawly handwriting.

I’m not claiming that the weather alone was the cause of Bruce Ploughman nor Kitty Campbell’s distress. Isolation, lack of support, intense relationships with those around them, overwork, lack of sleep and acute sense of responsibility often cannot be untangled from the effects of heat, cold, dust, drought and flood. So what can we make of these examples of ill health and weather? The far outback, its climate, landscape and isolation was seen by Australian Inland Mission staff and settlers to be deeply ambiguous, both invigorating and debilitating. These contradictory ideas often sat uncomfortably together but drove the work of the Australian Inland Mission, not just the narratives they told in their public profile but also in the way they treated patients.

Staff of the Australian Inland Mission did see much beauty in the climate and the landscape. They described the vitality of the land, the wildflowers, the glow of sunsets, the warm red of sand dunes and the fresh air – well, unpolluted air. Winter climates were considered ideal with clear sunny skies, dry air and cool nights. A sanatorium for people with tuberculosis was set up in Parachilna Gorge in the Flinders Ranges near Beltana in world war one - just after world war one.

Historian Bridget Hames in her book, The Ice and the Inland, analysed John Flynn’s writing in The Inlander magazine, organ of the AIM, and notes his admiration for open space, sparse population and the rural endeavours which he felt made for more wholesome and vigorous settlers. And yet AIM staff also were horrified by the landscape. Sister Edna McClelland wrote of Birdsville, I can’t explain what this country is like, it is the driest, dullest, sandiest-looking place I have ever seen.

This is one of my favourite photographs in the Australian Inland Mission collection. The caption is just, Scenery. Stories abounded of people getting lost physically, morally and spiritually in such a landscape. In AIM correspondence there are many stories of someone who knew someone who had died in the inland such as this one from Birdsville. The mailman perished in the pitiless heat and sand. Other stockmen and drovers had perished and some years passed before their skeletons were found. Some were never found, having been buried by the drifting sand.

In their patient notes erosion of vigour was viewed by nurses as a normal response to the climate and environment of central Australia. Debility which is kind of a general failure of mental and physical health was a common diagnosis at the nursing homes. In the five years between 1936 and 1941 I’ve counted 45 adults, both men and women, all non-Aboriginal, who were diagnosed with debility in my four nursing homes. That's 17% of the populations treated during that time – sorry 17% of people treated during that time.

This ambivalence about the landscape and climate of central Australia as both debilitating and healthy parallels extensive international literature in the late 19th and early 20th century about the fitness of white men and women in tropical Australia. Opposing camps argued on the one hand that white people were inherently unsuitable to hot and humid climates which depleted their physical and mental vitality. And on the other hand people also argued that white people adapted to tropical climates and were in fact invigorated by it.

There’s not much writing in international literature about the effect of arid climates on white people, which is one of the reasons why I’m interested in looking at it, but there were a few North American writers who linked flat inland landscapes without natural aspect, as they called it, such as the great plains of North America, to depression of mood and others felt that frequency of storms on the great plains led to increased insanity and nervous instability.

In this ambiguity around the health, fullness or debilitatingness of climates of arid Australia we can also see a mixture of old and new ideas about health. AIM doctors and nurses in the 1910s to 1940s firmly embraced biomedical ideas of health which had dominated medicine from the early 20th century. They were competent health practitioners of the day who wore the badge of science, modernity and hygiene proudly. They were aware of bacteria, contagion, sterilisation and promoted public and personal hygiene. Washing and cleaning featured prominently in their correspondence.

But weaving through these modern ideas were older concepts of health, the idea that environments and climates themselves were inherently healthy or unhealthy and that the environment permeated bodies and minds literally. Barcoo Fever and Barcoo Rot are examples of this.

Incidentally in 1992 medical historian J Hayman in the Medical Journal of Australia suggested that Barcoo Fever was perhaps poisoning by blue-green algae. Blue-green algae develops in warm, stagnant water, often high in nutrients. It’s now associated with fertiliser runoff but in central Australia at that time it was probably waterholes contaminated with cattle, camel and horse manure. And it’s likely that Aboriginal Australians of the inland knew not to drink from these places with blue-green algae.

The AIM provided some reconciliation between what they saw as healthfulness and the dangerousness of the inland and its weather. Nursing centres provided protection from the excesses of the outback. They provided stability in the chaos and unpredictability of the remote inland. They provided modern scientific expertise and medicine. They provided technology. They provided hygiene. And they provided order. The fact that nursing centres were staffed by women was particularly important. These AIM nursing centres were not clinics, they were nursing homes.

According to ideas of gender roles that were prevalent at the time the women who staffed the homes brought social and moral strength to the inland. Part of their role was purveyors of British culture. The AIM sent the homes literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and tasteful magazines which they distributed to interested people in the community. Nurses also brought music, hymns, of course, but also nonreligious music. And many nurses also cultivated gardens with varying success. They discussed them at length in their correspondence with the Australian Inland Mission central administration.

Ena Curry enthusiastically described her garden at Innamincka in the early 1920s. It sounds incredible that a garden could be wrested from this [gibba] 36:00 country, I know, but we are doing it. Oleander, bamboo, a water bush hedge, lemon and orange trees, candy tuft, [andyrynam] 36:08, petunias, lettuce and tomatoes. All of Ena Curry’s plants were introduced, again reinforcing introduced white culture in the remote inland. These gardens not only had practical value in providing fresh food and – fresh fruit and vegetables but they also conveyed cheerfulness, life and some sense of success despite the climate. This success was though in fact usually limited as each summer the gardens were baked and submerged by blowing sand.

So the AIM helped patients to either overcome or retreat. Nursing centres provided a haven. Both women and men were admitted to the hospital for a break and to revitalise. In 1936 one woman was admitted to the Birdsville Hospital for a 14-day rest. Just on her patient records it says needed a rest. For others, particularly female patients, treatment was evacuation to coastal areas and again that was for a complete change, it would say on the records. There was an idea at the time that white women could only stand the climate of the interior if they had a complete change every year. Most bush settlers of course didn’t have the opportunity to do that.

The nurses of the Australian Inland Mission as people as well as nurses were expected to embody all that was good and healthy about living in the inland. They were capable, adaptable, flexible and stoic. For women at the time to be an Australian Inland Mission nurse must have been an extraordinary opportunity for independence, autonomy and to practise and be respected for their professional experience and to be leaders in their community. Some of their description of life in their inland reads like a Girls’ Own annual. The physicality of their life, swimming, shooting, fishing and the adventures they wrote about. They were incredulous about the weather but also adaptable and humorous.

And I’ll quote to you from Nurse Belle Suggett of Birdsville. She writes, thick fog and rain, 141 points in half an hour. We had rain everywhere outside and nearly everywhere inside. The parlour room and kitchen were flooded. We had a patient and family with an umbrella over them and an outpatient whose finger was in a bandage with an umbrella over her. Sister and I were running around in all directions with things and then we saw the humour in it all so put on hats and coats and had a cup of tea with an umbrella over the tea tray.

But when cracks appear in this cheery façade it was met with disapproval by the Australian Inland Mission staff or the Australian Inland Mission central administration. I’ll read to you a particularly stark example of this from Innamincka in 1940 where Marjorie Walker and Janet Stevenson were nursing. On the 10th of February Marjorie Walker wrote to the AIM of the very hot weather then comes a letter dated 11th of March from Janet Stevenson, her nursing partner that is uncharacteristically blunt. I quote, unfortunately Sister Walker got sick, nothing organically wrong, a very definite nervous breakdown. I will carry on until relief comes. Miss Brodie - who was central administration - seems to think Sister Walker will come back. She won’t be coming back, she’s resting in Adelaide.

The response from the AIM is perhaps even more interesting. Very sorry to hear Sister Walker had a breakdown, do hope she will be alright again and able to return to Innamincka. Every effort is being made to try and obtain nurses to take on the work, it’s a pity Sister Walker’s health broke down. And in a letter written to Marjorie Walker herself, we are very sorry that there has been such a long delay in our writing to you. It was with very great regret that we heard of your breakdown in health. This has complicated matters but every endeavour is being made to send relief for Sister Stevenson. It is hoped that as a result of the rest you are now feeling much better and you will at least have the satisfaction that you did go to Innamincka and serve the AIM there for a period. We take this opportunity of thanking you for all you have done and regret that is not possible for you to complete your period of service.

And in another letter a month later, we regret that you are still suffering the effects of your breakdown. It was strange that your health should be so affected so suddenly when you really appeared to be thoroughly enjoying your service at Innamincka. And we have no response from Sister Walker to that letter.

So not only was the administration quite unsympathetic there was a significant note of blame in their letters. Sister Walker had betrayed the role of the AIM nurse who was competent and in control, stoic and adaptable. Nurses had a responsibility to their patients, the AIM and in fact the inland and the nation to embody that vitality. When women succumbed it was a source of irritation for the AIM and inconvenience but there was existing cultural concern about the stamina of women in hot and arid areas. But when men of the AIM succumbed to the remote inland they received even more criticism and you’ll recall Bruce Ploughman struggling heat, cold, isolation and insomnia. After his return to Melbourne John Flynn wrote about Bruce Ploughman, he has overstrained himself by overwork and overtravel and this fact makes his peculiar views more or less irrelevant for the time, although Flynn did acknowledge that Bruce Ploughman had worked very hard and was popular amongst the people in his patrol.

So I’ve taken you through a bit of a journey through the weather of remote Australia, the Australian Inland Mission, illness in early 20th century central Australia such as the Barcoos and emotional distress and some of the ways nurses of the AIM understood and coped with the remote arid inland in the context of their times.

So what can these stories from the Australian Inland Mission Padres and nurses and their patients tell us? Firstly I think these stories remind us of the physicality of the past. The past was experienced through people’s bodies and emotions. Secondly I think the people of the inland, both Aboriginal and settler, were profoundly affected by the extremes of dry, wet, cold, heat and dust but they also found ways to adapt. Understanding the physical and emotional effect of climate helps us to better appreciate the way weather has shaped our lives. And finally today climate variability and extreme weather is one of the key challenges of our times. We are living the legacy of the past now and maybe therefore we can learn from relationships between people and the environment in the past today. Thank you.


M:        Thanks very much, Rebecca, for that fascinating insight into – you provided into how early settlers in those areas cope with extreme weather and also the response of the central administration, I found that really quite fascinating. It really has broadened understanding of impact of climate on human physical and emotional health. And we've got time, 10 or 15 minutes, to explore this topic further. Questions, please. There’s a microphone up there that Susan has so if you can just raise your hand she’ll bring it to you, and Beth over there.

A:        Thanks for a fascinating presentation. The AIM, I presume, no longer exists. What brought about its demise or was it just replaced by another very similar organisation?

M:        It ceased to be called the Australian Inland Mission in 19 – or just after 1977 when the Presbyterian you know - as you probably know the Presbyterian Church split with some remaining in what was called the Continuing Church and some joining the Methodists and others to become what we now know as the Uniting Church and in the massive court case that occurred at that time the Australian Inland Mission was allocated to the Uniting Church and the Continuing Church continued an organisation that did some things, the Australian Inland Mission became the Uniting Church in Australia Frontier Services and it continued in some form. The – in the 19 – the height of the Australian Inland Mission work in terms of on-the-ground activities, the nursing homes was probably the period that I'm looking at. Nursing homes – some of the nursing homes were closed during the ‘50s and ‘60s but as you know the Royal Flying Doctors – the Royal Flying Doctors became a separate organisation in 1939 and you know as you know that’s still firing on all cylinders.

A:        Do you think there’s a way that people could have dealt with the climate that would have been more healthy in the past or now for current climate problems? Or is this part of Australia simply incompatible with the way of life that people are trying to live there, were and are?

M:        Wow, that’s a big question. I don’t really want to judge them on whether they could have dealt with it differently. I’m interested to know how they dealt with it more than whether they could have done it differently. They certainly – I mean a lot of settlers lived there for many years, all their lives so I'm not – I don’t want to paint a picture that implies that they were not successful because clearly a lot of them were. And the staff you know the staff worked very hard and did a you know did a lot of good work, it just wasn’t as easy and I wanted to kind of tease out some of the ideas that went around the health and ill health. So that’s my idea about the past. About the present, I think we can learn from the past because I think people in the past have done a lot already and they have learnt things which we are now continually relearning so I’d like to say we can learn from the past generally. My specific recommendations from this study I think is a little bit early to say at the moment but thanks for asking.

A:        Hi Rebecca, it’s wonderful to hear what you’re making of this collection and I’m just wondering, you said at the beginning, and this follows on from the last question, that you were trying to find parallel evidence with Aboriginal people and how they were experiencing the same environments but of course it’s not crazy to them, it’s normal to them, it’s not alien, it’s home. So I’m just wondering to what degree you’ve considered the concept of cognitive dissonance in what you're reading in these white settler accounts, how are they reconciling their distress with the fact that they’re aliens in this land that had been occupied by people for millennia?

M:        Thanks Carolyn. They certainly came from a – the Australian Inland Mission was - the fundamental philosophy of the Australian Inland Mission was that they needed to support white – British northern European settlement in the inland so the whole premise of the Australian Inland Mission was based on a – what we would now term a fundamentally racist idea that their culture needed to be supreme and that conquering the inland by settlement was – by settlement of European settlers was part of building the nation, part of colonisa – continuing colonisation of Australia and securing - and later securing the inland for Australian – for white Australians. So they were certainly very proud of that. This was part of the philosophy and they were – I think the nurses themselves, I don’t get much of a sense. The central administration and John Flynn himself, I do get a sense that he was both – this was his mission which he believed really strongly in. He was humanitarian towards – he had a humanitarian attitude towards indigenous people but he did believe that – he believed that they should be treated well but he believed that they were an outmoded way of being in the inland. Does that answer your question?

A:        <inaudible> 51:09.

M:        It could be, yeah, I mean it certainly – they certainly felt very alien in that culture and in that country but they were also very driven by their desire to overcome that. So that was kind of their purpose, really. It didn’t always succeed as you know given you those examples but it was definitely part of their – part of what kept them going is that they felt like they were doing this not only for their patients but for the Australian Inland Mission and for the nation.

A:        Hi, just a couple of quick ones. First I think you said you’d had this fellowship or did this fellowship for two-and-a-half months. Did you actually write your book in two-and-a-half months? So that’s just an aside. The second question, I read a book a number of years ago I think by someone, William Hatfield, Australia through the windscreen who drove around central Australia amongst other places and what stuck in my mind – back in 1939 he sort of circled Australia and down through central Australia. He went into quite a diatribe at one point and something that stuck in my mind which was the land use, overstocking through that area so I wonder does your book address at all land use as part of this issue on the effects of weather as well and climate?

M:        No, I didn’t write my book in two-and-a-half months, I wish. The book that you know is in the shelf – The Slow Catastrophes, that was actually a product of a postdoctoral fellowship. It discusses drought, the impact and adaptation to drought and this project actually was a kind of spinoff from that in which I became interested in other forms of climate and more deeply interested in the physical and emotional impact of extreme weather so – so that’s the connection. Was there a second part of that question?

A:        <inaudible> 53:44.

M:        Oh that’s right. I’m not – I haven’t so much looked at land use through the Inland Mission papers because they don’t provide me with that material but I did look at land use a lot in my book because I was mainly looking there at the pastoral and agricultural parts of south-eastern Australia. So yeah, land use, overstocking, that was a huge, huge factor, yeah.

A:        Thank you so much, Rebecca. I just wanted to ask you, one of the things that’s interesting about a communication like a letter between a missionary and the person who’s employing them or the centre that’s employing them is there’s a certain amount of things you can talk about and lots of things you can’t talk about and one of the things you can talk about is the weather. So I'm wondering to what extent the weather gets blamed for the isolation, the general unsatisfactoryness of the society they’re trying to preach Christianity at so there’s a whole lot of dimensions of their work that have nothing to do with the weather but the weather might be taking the blame and how do you tease that sort of difference out when you’re looking? Do you follow the temperature charts at the same time or how do you actually sort of work out what’s metaphor and what’s actually weather?

M:        Firstly I’m using a variety of correspondence, some of it is between the nurses and central AIM, some of it is actually personal correspondence such as Bruce Ploughman’s letters to his fiancé and his mother. So there is fortunately in the collection quite a range of different types of correspondence and diaries too where they can talk about things so-called privately – not anymore now I’m reading them but yeah, I agree that weather – the weather – well weather and landscape were the two incredibly stark things about the inland which just you know hit the people, particularly in the early stages of their placement, and as I was starting to look at the Inland Mission papers I started to try and work out what was what and then in the end I decided well in fact the weather, the landscape and the remoteness, as I said it in the talk, it’s really hard to tease out the difference between them. And I’m not sure it’s actually necessary, it’s – the Australian Inland Mission and the central Australia came as a package for these people which was remote and all the things that goes with remoteness you know lack of services, transport, blah di blah, remote, landscape and weather and those three were kind of – were the inland for these people.

So I think – I don’t think it is just weather as I said but I do think weather is a really major part. And just briefly note it’s really interesting, although these letters that they sent between nurses and Australian Inland Mission, the ones from the nurses back to the Mission, they – these women, Miss Baird and Miss Brodie that they wrote to, were their main – they were kind of like their handlers, their main points of contact and they were extraordinarily personal letters that they sent. It was – they talked about how much they relied on the mail which came about once a fortnight mostly, how intense mail days were for them and I think they were – the interaction between them, while it started off as kind of a formal reporting actually became something much – a much more intense relationship. So they did talk about their emotions which is great for me, yeah.

M:        Probably got time for one more question, Robyn, back there, I think.

A:        A marvellous use of the papers of such huge collection material, Rebecca. I’m wondering, there are so many sort of spinoff stories from this and so many different ways of looking at it. I’m just wondering if you’ve been able to think through what else there might be? I can’t think of another collection or another source that would give us such richness of perspective as this particular collection but have you seen other things in the collections which might kind of spinoff as complementary ways of looking or teasing out some of these questions? Or is it that this is just a kind of unique unusual collection that’s just kind of complete in itself?

M:        Thanks Robyn. There’s – there is so many stories that come out of – and I'm only looking at four nursing homes and I’m only looking at a particular period so I couldn’t even really begin to suggest things that relate to the other areas but you know you could look at specifically how they talk about indigenous people and the kind of – I think there’s a really interesting story there in the kind of conditions that indigenous people are experiencing in that period when indigenous people were recorded as indigenous. You could write – you could you know find something really fascinating in that. You know there’s other kind of – there’s really interesting – you could track influenza and colds, you could look at the way they look at childbirth and then you know you could look at all the other things that are completely unrelated to health. Yeah, I don’t even know where to begin, Robyn, with how many spinoff stories there could be.

M:        Look, please join me in thanking Rebecca one more time.


M:        We’ve got time now to talk to Rebecca further, perhaps carry on the conversation upstairs. There’s still I hope some food and beverages left and also it’s my duty as well to mention that next Tuesday, 1st of May Associate Professor Ruth Barraclough will take us to the 38th parallel with tales of Korea’s glamorous early Communist women in her tantalisingly titled lecture, Red Glamour. So please thanks very much for coming, everyone, and thanks once again, Rebecca.


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