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Health and medicine

If getting to the diggings was difficult, staying healthy while working there was even more of a challenge. When Ellen Clacy was at the Victorian diggings in 1852 and 1853, the main illnesses were "weakness of sight, from the hot winds and sandy soil, and dysentery, which is often caused by badly cooked food, bad water, and want of vegetables."

The Invalid Digger
S. T Gill
Courtesy of the La Trobe Collection
State Library of Victoria

"In reference to dysentery," wrote John Sherer in 1853, "both it and diarrhoea are of frequent occurrence, particularly in the spring and the commencement of the autumn; but they are seldom fatal. At the diggings ill health is certainly likely to be more frequent."

On his first trip to the goldfields, William Howitt was struck down with dysentery.
"To this day," he wrote in his diary, "seventeen days I have not been able to hold a pen ... I was seized with a violent attack of dysentery. I believe the place was an unhealthy one. Though perfectly dry at this time of year, during the winter it is almost entirely under water; and therefore, no doubt, an unwholesome miasma arises from it.

"Thousands have been struck down, and many of them are still lying on their backs, from the effects of change of climate, but still more from those of the change of living; and exposure to heat and cold, wet and night air, to which they had never been accustomed. They have rolled themselves in a rug at night, often soaked with rain, or chilled with the cold of the night, which is often very penetrating, especially after a day’s march under a hot sun; and, lying on the damp ground, have been seized, very naturally, with dysenteries, fevers, and rheumatism, which will cripple many for life, and have already carried many out of it. New as are these diggings, there is a tolerably populous cemetery on a hill here; and some who crossed the sea with us are already sleeping there."

There were few doctors on the goldfields, and those that were there charged a lot of money for a consultation.

"It is no joke to get ill at the diggings; doctors make you pay for it," wrote Ellen Clacy, "many are regular quacks, and these seem to flourish best."

Health as precious as gold

Most medicine was recommended by word of mouth. "Patent medicines" such as sarsaparilla pills and ointment, were hailed in testimonials from former patients in the Bendigo Advertiser. In fact Dr Eadie’s celebrated sarsparilla pills and ointment were advertised on the goldfields as more precious than gold. They were used as a cure-all for many diseases including sore eyes, ulcers, cancers, tumours, piles and ringworm.
Bendigo’s chemist shop stocked a wide variety of goods, including "fine healthy leeches", morphine, opium, hemlock, fly poison, and a range of "patent medicines" including "Dr Eadie and M'Intyre's ointment for broken-kneed horses", "Garsed’s worm cakes for children", "Jayne's Carminative Balsam for bowel complaints" and "W. Harris's anti-bilious mixtures". As well as their pharmacy stock, most chemists also doubled as insurance agents, gold brokers and dentists.

Poster from Sovereign Hill

Boyd and Dow modified an anti-dysenteric mixture used in India and South America for the Australian colonies.

"No inhabitant of the bush, no digger, nor 'anyone' subject to laxity of the bowels should be without a bottle," the company's advertisements claimed.

Sore eyes, too many flies

Eye problems plagued the miners, almost as much as the insects.

One man, wrote William Howitt "hurt his eye with the handle of a windlass; and the next morning, feeling a strange creeping sensation in it, he got up and to his horror saw it alive with maggots".

Edward Snell, who drew some of the most enduring images of the Victorian gold rush, wrote in his diary March 30, 1852 "eyes very bad, almost blind".

Flies, ants, centipedes, scorpions and red back spiders were encountered on the goldfields. Snell said the Victorian flies were worse than the South Australian ones he was accustomed to, and he often found his morning meal of mutton covered with ants. "Little fellows that emit the most abominable smell I ever encountered," he said.

"The mosquitoes left us about six weeks ago and were succeeded by millions of March flies, large black rascals that pitch in on us by hundreds and nip a little bit out of your flesh like a prod, these fellows are just gone and now we have large blow flies with yellow tails about us all day spoiling our meat, and at night our slumbers are disturbed every half minute by a sensation like a hot spark falling on the skin. This proceeds from a species of flying ant who gets into the bed clothes and directly you move whips about a quarter of an inch of his sting into your hide and charges you nothing for it."

Veiled hats keep off flies

Polish miner Seweryn Korzelinski also found the flies a problem.

"As we proceeded in the heat, the flies – a real plague in Australia – got in our eyes nose and ears. It is imposible to keep them away. Some of our party have veils on their hats and have let them down as defence. I use a twig because I am afraid of infection. Australian flies are similar in shape to our own, although somewhat smaller. One species has a very virulent sting. If they barely touch the eyelid the eye stings and within 24 hours the whole side of the face swells closing the eye."


By Helen Pitt


Mrs Charles Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the gold diggings of Australia, Lansdowne Press, 1963.

Peter A. Jaques, Gold Rush Medicine, Eaglehawk, 1988.

Seweryn Korzelinski, (translated and edited by Stanley Robe) Life on the goldfields; Memoirs of a Polish migrant; 1850s in Victoria, Mentone Educational Centre, 1994.

John Sherer, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, Clarke, Beeton, 1853.

Edward Snell, The life and adventures of Edward Snell, Angus & Robertson and The Library Council of Victoria, 1988.


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