Forgotten graves of those lost to tuberculosis

By Simon Ruppert

Lost in heavy bush outside the town of Helensburgh in the very southern suburbs of Sydney lies the abandoned cemetery of Garrawarra.

It contains more than 2000 graves of those who, confined in the nearby Waterfall sanatorium, died of tuberculosis between 1909 and 1959.

Unremembered, just 60 have gravestones.

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The local council responsible for the cemetery’s maintenance since 1967 forgot its existence completely until recently.

Before wide use of antibiotics and other drugs, tuberculosis (or consumption, to give it its 19th century name) was a highly infectious disease with a two in every three cases resulting in death.

It was spread by a bacillus in airborne droplets in exhalations, sneezes or coughs from those with active pulmonary tuberculosis.

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The disease tends to be one of overcrowding and poverty, although United States President James Monroe, poet John Keats and musician Tom Fogarty of Credence Clearwater Revival all succumbed to it.

It can affect any part of the body but typically affects and then destroys the lungs.

The archetypical images of tuberculosis are of a racking cough and a hankerchief spotted with blood.

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In all Australian states in the early 20th century, tubercular patients were confined against their will in sanatoria in country areas.

Communications were prohibited with the outside. It was thought that the clean air of a sanatorium would help cure tuberculosis. It did not. Most patients died.

If you lived in Benalla and were diagnosed with tuberculosis before the advent of antibiotics, you too would be confined.

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Mooroopna Hospital acted as the sanatorium for this area. Patients were not permitted to leave the hospital sanatorium or have interactions with the outside until they were confirmed free of the disease.

Without antibiotics, most patients remained confined for their entire life.

Mooroopna Hospital too has its forgotten graves. At the very back of the Mooroopna cemetery lies a mound of concrete aggregate.

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On it is a bronze plaque commemorating 937 patients of Mooroopna Hospital who lie in unmarked graves in the cemetery.

Some were influenza patients who died in the epidemic of 1919; others were patients who died in various polio epidemics; still others were those who died in the usual operations of a base hospital. Most, however, will be tubercular patients confined to its sanatorium until consumed by their disease.

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Most families would have had a tubercular patient.

For many years, tuberculosis was the most common or the second most common cause of death in Victoria. It is still in most countries worldwide.

With the advent of targeted drug therapy, tuberculosis is now uncommon in Australia.

It remains a notifiable disease and patients may be confined to treat the disease.

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Tuberculosis is mainly found now in indigenous people living remotely, or in overseas travellers visiting or settling in Australia.

The World Health Organisation estimates that India has two million new cases each year.

Australian Border Control screens for the disease. Of concern are strains that are resistant to drug therapy. These appeared in the 1980s in Africa.