These last couple of weeks, there has been quite a bit of viral gastroenteritis going around Beechworth, hot-on-the-heels of what would have to be one of the worst flu seasons in years. Last night at around 2am it hit our house… and as I was scraping projectile vomit from the bathroom walls, I began to think about issues of infection control in the era before microbiology and germ theory. What was personal hygiene like on the gold diggings?

Scanning electron micrograph of Escherichia coli

E. coli bacteria

If you’ve come across my earlier post, The problem with Poo, dealing with peoples’ toilet habits during the gold rushes of 1852, you will have realised that as a historian, I am far more fascinated with the minutiae of daily life than the rise and fall of empires. Ethnographic historian Robert Darnton, in the introduction to his wonderful book on the cultural history of France, The Great Cat Massacre, wrote that only when we look at trivial and taken-for-granted aspects of the past does it become fully apparent the extent to which the people who lived there did ‘not think the way we do.’ Darnton wrote:

…nothing is easier than to slip into the comfortable assumption that Europeans thought and felt two centuries ago just as we do today—allowing for the wigs and wooden shoes. We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock. (1)

With this in mind, let us return to issues of hygiene during the gold rush era of the early 1850s: Imagine a world in which medical students walked straight from performing autopsies on decomposing corpses in one room to the maternity ward where they delivered babies in the next, without disinfecting their hands. This practice, which routinely happened at Vienna General Hospital, meant that women were actually safer delivering babies on the street than under medical care. In fact, local women were terrified of giving birth in that maternity ward; and yet most of the doctors saw no issue. Moreover, this ignorance of infection control was by no means atypical of hospitals around the world in the nineteenth century.

What came to set Vienna General Hospital apart from other hospitals was that in 1847, one of its doctors, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis, began to suspect that tiny particles of cadaverous material still present on the hands of doctors were working their way into the bodies of women and making them sick. Finally, he made students and staff wash their hands with chloride of lime after performing autopsies, which dramatically improved the survival rate of the women and the babies they delivered. Semmelweis, with his great powers of observation, had learned one fundamental aspect of infection control: disinfect your hands.

One would think that, furnished with such clear evidence, doctors everywhere would start disinfecting their hands with chloride of lime — but it just didn’t happen. Instead, Semmelweis’s ideas were actually regarded as unscientific by the medical community of the day. To most medical practitioners, the idea of tiny particles which couldn’t be seen by the naked eye being capable of actually killing people, was simply ludicrous. Semmelweis tried to push his theory, but the medical establishment wasn’t having a bar of it. It literally drove Semmelweis mad, and he was committed to a mental asylum where he died in 1865 at the age of 47.

The disinfectant which was being used by Semmelweis, chloride of lime (a mixture with slaked lime and calcium chloride to make Calcium hypochlorite), was the forerunner of today’s liquid bleach (sodium hypochlorite). It was available from chemists during the Victorian gold rushes, but probably was used predominantly as a bleaching agent for clothes. The cleaning product of the era which did kill many household pathogens (although not salmonella) because it contains roughly 5% acetic acid, was vinegar. However, once again, in the absence of germ theory, vinegar was not actively used with disinfection in mind. Moreover, basic hand hygiene was so unknown, and personal cleanliness so under-valued, that for more than one hundred years, the British (and its colonies) had seen no problem with taxing soap to make it a luxury item. When the tax was finally repealed in July 1853, Prime Minister Gladstone’s rationale was not to give poor people better access to soap, but rather “to extinguish the slave trade” by giving parts of Africa, rich in palm oil, a solid source of income. (If you are interested in what type of luxury soap was available during the gold rush, see below.)

What can all these facts tell us about life during the Spring and Reid’s Creek gold rush in 1852-3? In short, no one thought any the worse of you if you went and relieved your bowels in a hole, wiped your rear-end up with a rag, changed the dressing on your friend’s dirty, pus-filled wound, and then came and broke bread with your mates — all without washing your hands. Little wonder most diggers experienced the most horrendous dysentery and trachoma (chlamydia infection of the eyes) — often repeatedly — and yet struggled to understand why it was happening to them. Instead, they genuinely thought themselves the victims of bad food or bad smells. (2)

These days we have vaccinations to protect us from most of the worst diseases, and antibiotics to deal with bacterial infections. These medical advances have meant that as a society, once again — but unlike our forebears, not for reasons of ignorance — we have become quite laissez-faire about personal hygiene. Where has it got us? The answer is not very far when it comes to viral gastroenteritis. And now it’s at my house. It’s time to break out the bleach, and spend more time washing hands.


The virtual absence of disinfection on the gold digging still doesn’t explain all the disease on the goldfields. Assistant surgeon general of the Commissioner’s Camp at Spring Creek, Dr Henry Green, died of typhus fever (i.e.: not typhoid) within three months of his appointment. (3) Typhus fever — a bacterial disease spread by fleas and body lice — probably owed its presence on the gold diggings to the high number of flea-ridden dogs, which is another story altogether.

(1) Robert Darnton, The great cat massacre and other episodes in French cultural history, New York, Basic Books, 1984, p.4.
(2) To see some examples as to how people were baffled by these illnesses, and how they attributed them to the wrong sources, read my earlier post, The problem with Poo.
(3) The Victorian parliamentary paper, Gold Fields: Return to Address, Mr Fawkner — 10th Dec 1852Laid upon the Council Table by the Colonial Secretary, by command of his Excellency Lieutenant Governor, printed 27 Sept 1853, lists Dr Green, Henry. Esq as being appointed assistant colonial surgeon to May Day Hills on 19 November 1852, on page 8. His death appears in ‘Scraps from the Ovens,’ The Argus , 25 February 1853, says he died on the 20 February.

Luxury Soap during the Gold Rush Era

The most commonly advertised soaps were white and brown ‘Windsor’ soaps, so named after the location in which they were traditionally made in London.

Perfumery and kindred arts: a comprehensive treatise on perfumery,
by Cristiani, R. S. (published by Richard S., 1877) explains:

‘Windsor soap is manufactured in this country with soda and sweet oil, or any good vegetable oil, and perfumed chiefly with essential oil of caraway.’

Cristiani gives this ratio of essential oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
Oil of bergamot… 4 ounces.
caraway. . . .2oz
cassia. . . .2oz (cassia is a type of cinnamon)
lavender. . . .8oz
cloves . . . . 1oz
petit-grain …1oz

George William Septimus Piesse, The Art of Perfumery And Methods of Obtaining the Odors of Plants, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakiston, 1857, gives these ratios for essential oils in brown and white windsor soaps:

Ratio of oils for Old Brown Windsor Soap:
petit grain
French lavender (all equal parts)

Ratio of oils for White Windsor Soap:
caraway 1 1/2
thyme 1/2
rosemary 1/2
cassia 1/4
cloves 1/4