EJANZH: Petrow, Sanatorium of the South, and Killalea, The Great Scourge, reviewed by Philippa Martyr

Stefan Petrow, Sanatorium of the South? Public health and politics in Hobart and Launceston, 1875-1914, Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1995.

Anne Killalea, The Great Scourge: the Tasmanian infantile paralysis epidemic, 1937-1938,Hobart: Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 1995.

Reviewed by Philippa Martyr, Tasmanian School of Nursing, University of Tasmania

These two works are part of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association’s monograph series, and both play their part in confirming the need for such a project. While both are on health care history, the monograph series will doubtless broaden its scope as time passes. Petrow’s book is a revised version of his Master of Arts thesis, while Killalea’s is a Master of Humanities thesis.That both have been published by their graduating university shows a level of commitment to new scholarship which can only be envied by many mainland universities.

Petrow has undertaken a comprehensive – some may say exhaustive – analysis of the role of municipal councils in Tasmania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Australian health care history tends rather too much towards examining the ever-growing state; this is understandable in that we tend to read history with the eyes of the present, and certainly in the present, the state is a major provider of health care. From Claudia Thame’s 1974 thesis ‘Health and the State’, through to more recent works like Anne Crichton’s Slowly Taking Control? Australian governments and health care provision(1990), and James Gillespies’ The Price of Health (1992), the overall interest of historians in this area has been to show the development of government control and interest in Australian health care.

In this light, Petrow’s book is a valuable contribution. Local councils were, in much of urbanised Australia and certainly up to the First World War, the primary authorities in health care provision. As such their role needs closer examination, especially – pace Thame, Crichton et al – their relationships with state and then federal governments. A particular responsibility of local bodies was, as is still the case, municipal sanitation, but the care and control of infectious disseases – ln pre-antibiotic days – was no less a pressing responsibility. Petrow critically examines Tasmania’s reputation as a health resort, and also looks at council activity in the light of late nineteenth century concepts of germ theory and disease prevention.

My chief criticism of Petrow’s book is that it still reads too much like a Master’s thesis. The same complaint cannot be levelled at Killalea’s book, which I read in its Master of Humanities version while researching my own thesis. Then, and now, it was eminently digestible. I thought for a while that this must be based on my own historical preferences; yet my own research has examined both Petrow’s field and Killaleats. Killalea’s use of C A Cranston’s thesis on deformity as device in the twentieth century Australian novel, and her imaginative parallel of convict leg irons and polio callipers, makes this a poignant and very Tasmanian study.

Killalea has a slight advantage over Petrow in that she can, and has, made use of living subjects who lived through and remember the poliomyelitis epidemics of the late 1930s.

One thing that can be said in praise of both works is that both the authors have researched their primary sources with meticulous detail. These form valuable bibliographies for future scholars, and in doing so make it that little bit easier for Tasmanian material to be incorporated into future Australian’ histories of infectious diseases and their control. Good secondary works are more accessible than archives, and can thus open the door for mainland scholars to use Tasmanian material even if they cannot, for reasons of distance, use the original archives.

Philippa Martyr

Dr Martyr teaches in the School of Nursing, at the University of Tasmania. She has researched the history of physical rehabilitation in Australia, and has also written a history of infectious diseases hospitalisation in Western Australia. She may be contacted through her home page