An exhibition exploring the school’s responses to public health emergencies

A letter written by Florence Nightingale in 1897 and donated to the Geelong Grammar School Archives was the stimulus for an exhibition exploring public health in the context of school life. To have an original letter written by such a significant historical figure in our possession is both exciting and inspiring, and the perfect artefact to introduce the topic of modern public health care. It was Florence’s dedication to improving nursing practices and sanitary procedures, such as the importance of handwashing, that laid the groundwork for the advances in public health care of the twentieth century.



Over the past century, Geelong Grammar School has been no stranger to public health emergencies. The first of these was the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919, which forced the school to close for several weeks in Term 1 and to implement strict quarantine measures, including the requirement for day students to temporarily board at school. Despite the precautions, in Term 2 influenza was brought into the school; ‘It spread rapidly and for a month we had an anxious and difficult time … but there were no serious cases, and all the patients made a good recovery’ reported the Corian.

New-Sanatorium-1925       New-Sanatorium--Exterior-1925
The largest exhibit is an original bedhead from the school sanatorium, built in 1924 to manage future health emergencies. Original photographs from a school album show interior and exterior views of the building, which was designed by specialist hospital architects according to the specifications of the Health Act of 1919. Floors were sealed with beeswax and graded to allow for washing, windows were a regulated size to ensure adequate ventilation, and a large verandah enabled patients to be wheeled outdoors to benefit from the health-giving properties of fresh air and sunlight. Also included in the display are the name plaques from the two wards, named after the late Lieutenant John Simson and Lieutenant Alan Wilkins, whose fathers were major donors to the building.

By the 1960s, the once modern sanatorium was considered old-fashioned. A large plan on display shows the layout of the new Kennedy Medical Centre which was opened in 1969 and considered to be ‘the most modern medical centre in Australia’ (Corian). It operated as a fully functioning GP’s clinic, servicing the entire school community and capable of addressing all medical needs except anything requiring anaesthesia. Photographs show the x-ray room, wards and outdoor sun terrace in action.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the exhibition are the documents and letters that reveal the frequency of infectious disease outbreaks at the school, and the difficulties encountered by school authorities in managing them. ‘Fortunately only measles assumed epidemic proportions. Had the other diseases spread in a similar way we would have been in a very difficult position as regards nursing and the prospect gave cause for a certain amount of anxiety’, reported the school doctor in December 1942. Before vaccines became available, diseases such as mumps, scarlet fever, measles and polio occurred with alarming regularity, causing disruptions to school events, sports competitions, camps and exams. During the 1937 polio epidemic, groups of students were isolated from one another, and some students worked from home by correspondence –measures that are all too familiar to today’s GGS students.

Understanding the frequency of disease outbreaks over the past century provides important context for the final part of the exhibition, which refers to the global pandemic of 2020 and the school’s response. Put in perspective, it is both humbling and emboldening to realise that living with infectious disease is not a new phenomenon and, in fact, was once a normal part of school life. The masks and bottles of hand sanitiser on display are a poignant reminder that our primary line of defence against the contagion are measures that were devised over 150 years ago by Florence Nightingale.

An article investigating the provenance of our Florence Nightingale letter appears in the new edition of Light Blue. The exhibition, which is on display in the Quad, was curated by Sophie Church and Briony Pemberton.