SPECIAL TRIBUTE: The fountain built in honour of the two nurses, Cecelia Bauer and Rose Wiles.
SPECIAL TRIBUTE: The fountain built in honour of the two nurses, Cecelia Bauer and Rose Wiles. Contributed

Fountain lasting tribute of sacrifice of two nurses

BESIDE the Maryborough City Hall is a very historically significant fountain that is currently being carefully restored to ensure that it continues to pay tribute to an important part of our history.

Built in 1966, this unique fountain on the western side of City Hall was a gift of the Junior Chamber of Commerce to the citizens of Maryborough in remembrance of two heroic nurses who lost their lives in the 1905 outbreak of pneumonic plague.

In 1904 there had been an outbreak of bubonic plague in Maryborough, but 1905 would bring the rare and more deadly pneumonic form.

The bubonic plague, spread through fleas from infected rodents, meant that a coordinated approach could limit the spread.

However the pneumonic plague could spread easily from person to person, meaning a sneeze could be a death sentence.

The tragic circumstances which are now memorialised with this fountain can be traced back to a small, cramped and filthy rented cottage that used to be on the corner of Sussex and Pallas streets.

Here, Richard O'Connell, a wharf worker, and his seven children lived in poverty.

O'Connell's wife had died a bit over a year earlier and he was ill-equipped for the role of sole parent, spending much of his wages on alcohol, reducing his children to scavenging for food from rubbish tips and open drains.

It was this harsh poverty in the unsanitary streets of Maryborough that led to the deadly outbreak. The eldest of the children, John, a 17- year-old clerk for a warehouse near the river, was the first to show symptoms; however, when first seen by a doctor on May 24, 1905, he was incorrectly diagnosed with dengue fever.

Overnight his condition deteriorated and by the next morning he had died. A neighbour, Mrs Letetia Edwards cared for the dying boy.

She and a family friend, Miss Schafer arranged the corpse, however that night John's body was still in the house lying on a bed of filthy sacking and several of the children slept in the bed beside the body of their deceased brother.

As the family could not afford funeral expenses, John's body remained unburied for 36 hours. His body was eventually taken away and buried by the city's health authorities who were not aware of the imminent health threat to the entire community.

By May 28, four other O'Connell children had developed symptoms and were taken to the Maryborough Hospital. Mrs Edwards was also struck with the symptoms of the as yet undiagnosed plague.

The next day the two remaining children showed symptoms and were also taken to the hospital.

By May 31, two more of the children had died and so had Mrs Edwards, bringing the number of deaths to four.

It was at this time that the possibility of plague first appeared in the Maryborough Chronicle. In the meantime, both Nurse Cecelia Bauer and Nurse Rose Adelaide Wiles, affectionately known as Nurse Adela, were amongst the nurses caring for the O'Connell children.

Ritchie O'Connell would become the fifth victim, and it was his post-mortem which would reveal indications of pneumonic plague.

On June 3 the youngest of the children, Mary, just three and a half years old, passed away. Like her brother Ritchie, her post-mortem was indicative of plague. On the same day, 11 days into the outbreak, the fire brigade, under instructions from the government plague specialist, burned the squalid O'Connell cottage down. It was also on this tragic day that Cecelia Bauer, who had been almost constantly with the children from the onset of the plague, began to show the first symptoms. On Monday, June 5, Nurse Adela developed the symptoms as Nurse Bauer's condition steadily deteriorated.

The 14th day of the outbreak, June 6, would see the death of Cecelia Bauer in the morning and later that day the arrival of the official results from the Brisbane pathology department confirming that the deadly condition was pneumonic plague. Within a week, on June 12, Nurse Adela became the final victim.

Later that week, a third nurse, Nurse Sprague had sufficiently recovered and was discharged, other nurses had been sent to Pialba to recover their strength after a very intense, difficult and draining three weeks.

At the memorial service for Nurse Adela, Reverend JD Martin noted, in relation to both nurses, the courage and selflessness of their actions:

"We glorified the soldier, who amid the excitement on the battle, rushed to his death, but the bravery of the soldier on the battle field was an insignificant thing compared with the quiet heroism of those who, in the presence of deadly disease and with the knowledge that they themselves might fall victims to it, went steadfastly on with their appointed tasks.”

When this monument was unveiled, back in 1966, the horror of May and June 1905 was still in living memory of a few people in Maryborough. It is a memorial to two brave women who gave their lives in the service of others.

Upon its official opening, the monument, built by Bert Piling, was significant for featuring Butchulla artwork.

The artwork is the work of Auntie Olga Miller, with the style used by her in illustrations for the famous book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl.

The artwork relates to two legends of the Butchulla people; one tells about a magic stone and the other about the ibis and nearby Baddow Island.

This peaceful fountain beside City Hall is a lasting memorial to the nurses who through their bravery, professionalism and humanity not only ensured that the final days of the O'Connell children were as peaceful as possible, but also ensured that the plague did not spread to catastrophic proportions.

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