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Centenary of the 1918 flu pandemic

Published date: 22 Nov 2018

Friday 23 November 2018 marks 100 years since New Zealand’s worst-ever disease outbreak.

Black and white photo of ambulances in Wellington in 1918 Enlarge image

Emergency ambulances alongside the Wellington Town Hall during the 1918 flu epidemic.

Source: Alexander Turnbull Library collection, PAColl-7489-69

An influenza pandemic (world-wide epidemic) struck New Zealand between October and December 1918, just at the war’s end. No other event has killed so many New Zealanders in so short a time.

In only two months, about 9,000 New Zealanders died — about half as many as in the whole of the First World War. Around the world, the pandemic infected hundreds of millions, and killed almost three times as many as WWI.

Origins of the infection

Historians now believe the pandemic was related to swine flu. They also believe it’s likely that American soldiers were first infected in Kansas and carried the virus to Europe early in 1918. Returning troops brought it back to New Zealand, first to military camps such as Featherston and Trentham, then spreading it around the country as they returned home.

Many people believed the virus arrived in New Zealand aboard the RMS Niagara with the Prime Minister, William Massey, and Finance Minister, Sir Joseph Ward, who were returning from meeting the Imperial War Cabinet in London. However, the virus was already established in New Zealand by this point in October 1918, so this seems unlikely.

Parliament’s response to the pandemic

The House kept sitting through the height of the influenza epidemic, but Prime Minister Massey was forced to adjourn twice, and close the public galleries, because of the severity of the epidemic.

At least 18 MPs were laid low, and two died from the virus: the Labour Party leader, Alfred Hindmarsh, and the Reform Party’s David Buick. As a result, Harry Holland became the new leader of the Labour Party.

Māori suffered particularly heavily from the virus, with about 2,500 deaths around the country. As historians report, their MPs did what they could to help.

  • Tau Henare, MP for Northern Māori and great-grandfather of the later MP Tau Henare, “turned his own house into a hospital and, with his parents’ help, nursed the sick of the district”. (His wife had died early in the epidemic in Auckland, where their children were at school.)” [1]
  • Dr Māui Pōmare, MP for Western Māori and Minister for Native Affairs, was struck down at the beginning of the epidemic, and had a relapse after attempting to get up too soon. But by late November he was well enough to attend his electorate. “Starting with Manawatu on 24 November, Pōmare visited all the principal pā in the western half of the North Island, and reached Thames on 16 December. The Levin Chronicle described his car as a ‘miniature pharmacy’ on wheels, and wherever he stopped he left supplies of medicine.”[2]

Legislative legacy of the pandemic

Once the pandemic was over, the Government set up a Royal Commission to investigate how the crisis had been handled. The Department of Public Health had come in for heavy criticism.

One of the Commission’s recommendations was for an overhaul of the Health Act, to consolidate and simplify the existing legislation. The result — the Health Act 1920 — has been praised as a model piece of health legislation. It was “so well drafted that it survived with only minor amendments until the 1956 Health Act, which itself still followed the general pattern of the 1920 Act”.

Historian Geoffrey Rice has described the Health Act 1920 as “the most useful legacy of the 1918 influenza pandemic”.

Sources and more information

You can get more information about the 1918 influenza pandemic from the New Zealand History website, Nga korero a ipurangi o Aotearoa, and from the books listed below:

The House: New Zealand’s House of Representatives 1854–2004 (Martin, 2004).

Black November: the 1918 influenza pandemic in New Zealand (Rice, 2005).

[1]           Source: Black November, p. 175

[2]           Source: Black November, p. 181.