Gold Fever: Disease and its Cultural Relationship: A Case Study on the Development of the Colony of Victoria, 1850 to 1900

01st June 2008

Phil Roberts

MA, School of Archaeology and Anthropology, The AustralianNationalUniversity, June 2006

This thesis is a study of the use of disease and disease terminology as a tool for the reconstruction of cultural environments in historical archaeological studies. This is achieved through exploring disease behaviour in the colony of Victoria, experienced by European, Asian and Aboriginal groups, from 1850 to 1900, during and in the aftermath of the socio-economic phenomenon of the Victorian Gold Rush. The data for this thesis derive, for the most part, from government registers of mortality in the colony.

The aims of this study were explored in the context of several key questions: (1) how does disease change with the socio-economic developments of Victoria 1850-1900?; (2) given a common geography and historical events, how do disease rates differ between the Asian, European and Aboriginal groups and what are the potential causes for this?; (3) using this data, is it possible to differentially diagnose particular diseases through the examination of terminological usage?; and (4) in answering these questions, how useful are indicators of disease in archaeological, anthropological and epidemiological investigations when attempting to determine the environments in which people lived and are living?

The key findings were that when the terms ‘quinsy’ and ‘laryngitis’ were used to describe death they most commonly refer to diphtheria infection. The term ‘puerperal fever’ refers to group A streptococci bacterial infection of the vagina and uterus following childbirth. The terms describing liver disease most commonly refer to alcoholic diseases of the liver.

In terms of disease change with the socioeconomic developments of Victoria from 1850 to 1900, alcohol abuse behaviour changed from binge-drinking in the 1850s to long-term alcoholism in the 1870s. Diet changed throughout the study period and patterns of fertility were reflected in disease patterns. Between the minority groups the use of the mortality term ‘unknown’ differs markedly, potentially showing changes in racial prejudice with economic success. The different ethnic groups also had very different rates of accidents, potentially indicating employment levels and risk of suicide.

It was demonstrated that mortality in Victoria throughout the period of study changed markedly. Variation was found between the rates of listed causes of mortality in different socio-economic environments and in different ethnic groups, demonstrating the utility of disease in reconstructing past cultural environments. Further, it is shown that different diseases have varying levels of value in reconstructing cultural change. Finally, it is clear that different causes of mortality need to be considered on a disease-by-disease basis in ascertaining how sensitive the behaviour of the disease is in communicating information about human behaviour in the past.

Phil Roberts
Gold Fever: Disease and its Cultural Relationship: A Case Study on the Development of the Colony of Victoria, 1850 to 1900
June 2008
Thesis Abstracts
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