Feature Article - Health in Tasmania since 1900
Contributed by the Department of Health and Human Services
Health care issues have been a major part of life in Tasmania over the past hundred years although the major health concerns of 1900 would be barely recognisable in a list of the major health concerns in the year 2000.
In 1900, major surgery was at an early stage of development in Hobart and Launceston, with the larger rural centres falling somewhat behind. A turn of the century history of the local hospital at Queenstown proudly records that a Mt Lyell Company engineer successfully treated a man with a partially severed foot.
That same history reported industrial injuries, burns, epidemics of typhoid fever, diphtheria, scarlet fever, influenza and midwifery services as being major health concerns of that small but thriving remote part of the State.
Finding sufficient money to support health services has always been a concern, and statements along the lines of ‘Institute X is in serious financial difficulties’ appear almost without relief in any record of Tasmania’s health service throughout the 20th century.
Numerous advances have been made in health services throughout the century. The prevention, treatment and control of infectious diseases is arguably the area in which the most spectacular gains have been made. Immunisation is the only way of providing effective prevention against tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps and rubella, all of which were well-known, feared and often fatal infectious diseases at the turn of the century. While only smallpox has been totally eradicated, the other infectious diseases are now a relatively minor cause of illness and death among children. Immunisation also prevents the relatively recently discovered disease of haemophilus influenza Type B (HIB) and hepatitis Type B. The era of isolation wards and even special hospitals for the treatment of infectious diseases has been replaced by an era in which sophisticated computer-based reminder systems, and partnerships with local government encourage parents to maintain full immunisation coverage of their children.
Wide use of antibiotics from the Second World War years, the poliomyelitis epidemics of the 1940s and 1950s, the emergence of new types of hepatitis infections, the tragic and still largely untreatable consequences of HIV/AIDS and the rise and fall of sexually transmitted diseases have been other major features of infectious diseases throughout the century.
Technology in health at the turn of the century extended little beyond the use of x-rays in the diagnosis of fractures and some other conditions.
The use of radiation to treat cancer was introduced into Tasmania in the 1920s under the pioneering head of Dr W. P. Holman at the Launceston General Hospital. The treatment rays used for radiotherapy are similar to, but much more powerful and penetrating than, those used for taking x-ray pictures for diagnosis.
The early radiotherapy treatment machines have been progressively superseded by highly sophisticated linear accelerator equipment which enables precise doses of radiation to be directed to precise areas of the body to destroy cancerous cells.
Similar huge advances have been made in the use of radiation for diagnostic purposes, and over the last twenty years of the 20th century in the use of powerful electromagnetic fields for diagnostic imaging.
Technology now forms a major part of almost every specialist branch of medicine.