Sister Rosa O’Kane: A forgotten hero

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Second Lieutenant Sister Rosa O’Kane (Screenshot via YouTube)

In 1918, as the First World War came to a close, 260,000 Australians had to be repatriated. The returning troops brought with them the “Spanish” influenza, a deadly pandemic that swept the world in 1918–19. As a result, many men had to be quarantined before being reunited with their families.

However, many Australian soldiers would never have survived quarantine without the care and sacrifice from nurses such as Sister Rosa O’Kane, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

WAR HAD LOST its patriotic glow by 1918. The excitement of adventure had worn off and horror, distrust and a deep sadness replaced it. Many women wore black, newspapers continued to print lists of the Australian dead and a visit from a church minister was loathed as he often brought news of the death of a loved one.

The 1918–1919 influenza pandemic stands as one of the greatest natural disasters of all time. In a little over a year, the disease affected hundreds of millions of people and killed between 50 and 100 million — at least three times more than the deaths caused by the First World War. Few families or communities escaped its effects and possibly 25–30% of the world’s population was infected with influenza in 1918–1919.

While its exact origins are still debated, it’s understood that the “Spanish Flu” did not come from Spain. The name seems to have arisen as reporting about influenza cases was censored in war-affected countries, but Spain was neutral, so frequent stories appeared about the deadly flu in Spain.

It’s unlikely that the Spanish Flu changed the outcome of World War I, because combatants on both sides of the battlefield were relatively equally affected. However, there is little doubt that the war profoundly influenced the course of the pandemic. Concentrating millions of troops created ideal circumstances for the development of more aggressive strains of the virus and its spread around the globe.

Ever since the first military nurses sailed for the Boer War in South Africa in January 1900, Australian nurses have served in theatres of war and conflict around the world. During the First World War, 2,139 nurses served with the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) and 130 Australian women served with Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS) or contributed to the war effort overseas through associations like the British, French or Belgian Red Cross or the Young Women’s Christian Association.

Australian nurses served in the Mediterranean, France, Belgium, England, Salonika and India as well as on hospital ships. On the Western Front, they worked in advanced dressing stations and field hospitals behind the lines, often within range of artillery and subject to aerial bombardment. However, by the end of the First World War, 23 of these women had died in service.

The Spanish Flu made landfall in Australia in January 1919 and resulted in about a third of all Australians becoming infected and nearly 15,000 people being dead in under a year. These figures match the average annual death rate for the Australian Imperial Force throughout 1914–18. More than 5,000 marriages were affected by the loss of a partner and over 5,000 children lost one or both parents. In 1919, almost 40% of Sydney’s population had influenza, more than 4,000 people died and in some parts of Sydney influenza deaths comprised up to 50% of all deaths.

It wasn’t just victims who were affected. Across Australia, regulations intended to reduce the spread and impact of the pandemic caused profound disruption. The nation’s quarantine system held back Spanish Flu for several months, meaning that a less deadly version came ashore in 1919. But it caused delay and resentment for the 180,000 soldiers, nurses and partners who returned home by sea that year.

Arguably, 1919 could be considered as another year of war, albeit against a new enemy. Indeed, the typical victims had similar profiles: fit, young adults aged 20-40. Unlike other influenza pandemics, which mainly impacted on people at the extremes of life, the 1918–1919 outbreak infected mainly young, healthy adults in the prime of life. This is known as a cytokine storm because young people’s strong immune systems reacted so well that it killed them.

Whatever your heritage, your ancestors and their communities were almost certainly touched by the pandemic. It’s a part of all of our family histories and many local histories. And yet, little is known of its generational impact.

Despite the disruption, fear and substantial personal risk posed by the Spanish Flu, tens of thousands of ordinary Australians rose to the challenge. The wartime spirit of volunteering and community service saw church groups, civic leaders, council workers, teachers, nurses and organisations such as the Red Cross step up.

They staffed relief depots and emergency hospitals, delivered comforts from pyjamas to soup and cared for victims who were critically ill or convalescent. A substantial proportion of these courageous carers were women, at a time when many were being commanded to hand back their wartime jobs to returning servicemen.

The 1,200 troops on board HMAT Boonah were bound for the trenches of the Western Front in World War One. But it wasn't the battlefields of Europe that claimed dozens of their young lives, instead meeting their fate with Spanish influenza in Perth's southern suburbs. It was the last troop ship to leave Australia bound for Europe, but the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 before HMAT Boonah reached the Western Front.

Three days later, it docked in Durban, South Africa, to re-coal before heading back to Australia. Although the Aussie troops weren't allowed to go to shore in Durban, they mingled with local men re-coaling the ship to buy ostrich feathers as souvenirs. This encounter proved to be a deadly mistake for dozens on board, who became infected by influenza. This spread among the troops, resulting in more than 300 cases.

By the time the troopship reached the shores of Fremantle on 7 December 1918, 400 of the 1,000 men on board were infected. The HMAT Boonah wasn't allowed to dock and was left stranded in Gage Roads, with the hundreds of infected men taken to the Woodman Point Quarantine Station. With no medical staff to care for the men, authorities desperately turned to a ship of military nurses on board SS Wyreema, also on its way back to Australia.

Second Lieutenant Sister Rosa O’Kane was born in Charters Towers on 14 April 1890. She was the daughter of John Gregory O’Kane and Jeanie Elizabeth O’Kane and grand-daughter of the former owner of the Northern Miner, Thadeus O’Kane. Rosa trained as a nurse in the Townsville Hospital which she completed in 1915. She then worked in Charters Towers and Hughenden before being appointed Matron at the Winton Hospital in 1917.

During this time she received notice from the military authorities that she may need to take up duties in Brisbane. She was subsequently called up for duty on 27 November 1917 and worked at the military hospital in Kangaroo Point. In June 1918, O’Kane sent a telegram to her mother stating she was leaving immediately on a transport ship and expected to be back in six months.

O’Kane embarked on the troopship SS Wyreema from Sydney on 14 October 1918 with a party of 40 Australian army nursing sisters bound for Thessalonica (Salonika). They had already reached Cape Town when Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918. As a result, the SS Wyreema arrived back at Fremantle on 10 December 1918.

Rosa O’Kane was selected as one of the 20 volunteers to tend the infected soldiers. By this time, the effects of the worldwide influenza epidemic were being felt. The volunteers from the nurses aboard the SS Wyreema worked at the Quarantine Station Hospital tending to infected returning soldiers. Of the 20 nurses from the SS Wyreema who volunteered to care for the infected soldiers, 15 contracted Spanish Flu and four made the supreme sacrifice — Army staff nurses Rosa O’Kane, Doris Ridgway and Ada Thompson and civilian nurse Hilda Williams. The tragedy also claimed the lives of 26 soldiers.

On Anzac Day, 25 April 1933, a touching picture was conveyed in The West Australian from one of the quarantine sisters, describing the burial of Sister O’Kane:

Between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M. on a beautiful moonlight night, writes Sister Morris, four sailors carried the body (wrapped in a winding sheet of the Union Jack) to the mortuary out in the scrub. Later in the day the burial took place at the quarantine station. The nurses made little wreaths from West Australian wild flowers, which were placed on the coffin with the Union Jack. I did not leave the grave side till the “Last Post” was sounded… Let us, then, on Anzac Day, think for a moment of that lonely little cemetery in the bush and those white sanded graves lying in the sunlight in the sound of the murmuring sea.
The Weekly Times, on 28 December 1918, announced Sister Rosa O’Kane’s death:
Sister Rosa O'Kane, whose death is reported from Perth through influenza, left Victoria about eight weeks ago on a transport for “service somewhere.” On the voyage a wireless message was received from the military authorities in South Africa, calling for volunteers to nurse influenza patients in quarantine. In responding to the call of duty, Sister O'Kane made the supreme sacrifice.
And the Catholic Press, 16 January 1919, wrote:
General regret was expressed in Townsville, when it became known that Sister Rosa O'Kane Had made the supreme sacrifice, dying from the effects of that dread scourge, Spanish influenza, whilst nursing the soldier patients at Woodman's Point.

Most of the dead were buried at Woodman Point, including the four nurses. In 1920, Ada Thompson was exhumed and re-interred at Fremantle Cemetery. Most other service personnel were exhumed from Woodman Point’s bushland cemetery in 1958 and re-interred at Perth War Cemetery.

The death of Rosa O’Kane 100 years ago prompted her home town of Charters Towers in north Queensland to fund a monument to her thousands of kilometres away to the south of Fremantle in Western Australia that embodied all who died in the Great World War. As demonstrated by the monument, Rosa O’Kane was much loved and greatly missed by her family and friends in Charters Towers. Her sacrifice was remembered and held true in particular by her mother, Jeanie O’Kane.