When quackery ruled

The Methven hotel, which was used as a temporary hospital during the 1918-19 influenza epidemic.

Medical records and other documents give invaluable information about how people lived at certain points in time.

New Zealand’s history of public health is supported by comprehensive statistics and research, which give insight into how matters of health and disease have been handled.

Bacterial infections, influenza, and poliomyelitis were top killers in the 19th century.

How each disease was treated shows us how far we have come since this time.

Public health for New Zealand settlers was a mixed bag. On one hand, population density was low and settlements were spread out – factors that should theoretically slow the spread of disease.

However, sanitation was very poor, which meant that bacterial infections and respiratory diseases were leading causes of death.

Clean water supplies and effective sewage disposal systems were sorely lacking. The Christchurch sewer system, which was the first proper sewer system in the country, did not reach completion until 1882.

Handy medical notes

As for common medical practice, an article published in the Ashburton Guardian on November 28, 1882, titled Handy Medical Notes, showcases some aspects of 19th century medical practice.

The article featured excerpts from Hall’s Journal of Health.

Among other things it states that most people died suddenly from “congestion of the lungs or brain”.

This article also presents a recipe for a dubious cough drink – “Mix in a bottle four ounces of glycerine, two ounces of alcohol, two ounces of water, two grains of morphine”.

Thankfully, the article advises against giving this drink to children under 10.

Many popular remedies were patent medicines, which often claimed to be cure-alls. These came in many different forms, and often contained ingredients such as cocaine, opium or cannabis.


Many were compounded by quack doctors and these medicines were advertised in newspapers across the world, including the Ashburton Guardian.

One such medicine was Holloway’s Pills, which were famous across the world.

They claimed to have “purifying, aperient, and strengthening properties”, and were advertised as being able to treat every ailment and illness.

It comes as no surprise that many benefits listed in advertisements were phony, while some worked as effective pain and sickness relievers, thanks to strong narcotic ingredients.

From the late 19th century onwards, fully labelled and manufactured medicines became widespread and the aptly named Quackery Prevention Act 1908 cracked down on misleading medicine labels and advertisements.


New Zealand’s worst disease outbreak was the lethal influenza pandemic that struck between October and December 1918.

In two months New Zealand lost about half as many people to influenza as it had in the whole of World War One.

No event has killed so many New Zealanders in such a short time.

The pandemic killed up to 5 per cent of the world’s population. It was reported in the Ashburton Guardian that during the last three months of 1918, 775 deaths related to influenza had occurred in Canterbury alone.

During the pandemic, movie screenings were cancelled, schools were closed and travel permits were restricted. Isolation was key to managing the outbreak.

Statistics show that pneumonia and influenza death rates were higher for men between 15 and 74 than for women. It is speculated that this is because men were the breadwinners of families, so they could not rest as much when unwell.


From the 1920s to 1960s, poliomyelitis was the most feared virus in the world.

New Zealand alone experienced countless polio epidemics, which required lengthy treatments to prevent death and minimise permanent disability.

Polio’s most infamous potential bodily effect – paralysis – made it one of the most terrifying infectious diseases to strike the world.

The story of polio is not just a story of death however, as it also shows how people triumph over disease.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century vaccines were devised to immunise the public against polio, and thanks to these, there have been only seven cases of polio in New Zealand since 1962.

– By Connor Lysaght