Sunday, January 22, 2012

Coup de Soleil - the Silent Killer

New immigrants to Australia often misjudged the power of the Antipodean sun particularly those who laboured in the outdoors.  Many wore heavy dark clothing more suited to the temperate climes of their homelands in Northern Europe. Not surprisingly cases of sun-stroke or heat-stroke were quite common and sometimes resulted in fatal outcomes.

In a guide to the Australian colonies an English Mineralogical Surveyor included these frightening observations:

 Immigrants arriving in the heyday of life, may expect to die ten years sooner than they would in England.

A few cases of coup de soleil, or sunstroke, occur every year during the hot weather, and sometimes a person dies from the bite of a venomous serpent.[1]

Cockburn's property, Crohamhurst Station
In 1857, the North Australian reported the gruesome discovery by a shepherd, of the blackened body of a fellow German immigrant.

A magisterial inquiry took place yesterday, at the Police Office, touching the death of a German, named John Seitz, who died from the effects of a sun-stroke at the Three mile Creek, on the 15th instant.

Henry Montague Cockburn
It appeared, from the evidence of Mr. H. M. Cockburn, that the deceased was his hired servant and on being informed by one of his shepherds that the deceased was lying dead in the bush, he proceeded there accompanied by Dr. Challinor and a constable, and saw the body on the ground: there were no remarks of violence upon it, but his face was black.

Dr. Challinor stated that he had examined the body externally, and from the congested state of the head and face, was of opinion that the deceased died in convulsions most probably occasioned by a sunstroke.[2]

German immigrants, especially those recently arrived, seemed especially susceptible to the Queensland summer heat.

DEATH BY SUN STROKE -The weather has been excessively hot during the past week, and several cases of coup de soleil have occurred; one of these proved fatal. On Wednesday, we learn that the thermometer reached 105[3] in the shade.

We subjoin the particulars of the fatal case of sun stroke, as taken in evidence before the Coroner, (K. Cannan, Esq.):-

William Gericke deposed: I am a farmer; the deceased William Klemm, has been in my employ about five months. Shortly before four o'clock yesterday afternoon I found the deceased lying under a bush quite insensible. About half an hour before, I saw him (the deceased) hoeing and apparently quite well.

He was rather an ailing man, and did not enjoy the best of health. He had on a brown felt hat, - a hat I think quite unsuitable to the climate. I sent immediately for Dr. Bell. The deceased was a sober man, and had no drink to my knowledge yesterday.

-John Adsett deposed; I am a labourer, and have known the deceased about five months. About five o'clock yesterday afternoon, I found the deceased in the corn, lying helpless on his side, breathing very hard. I bathed him with water and vinegar till Dr. Bell came.

Dr. Cannan the Coroner
-Hugh Bell deposed: I am a legally qualified medical practitioner;  I saw the deceased between half-past four and five o'clock;  he was then nearly lifeless;  I considered that the heart was gorged with blood. I endeavoured to get some blood to flow, and to get some stimulants into the stomach, without succeeding. I think the deceased died from a sun-stroke. The jury returned a verdict of died from the effects of a sun-stroke.[4]

The Brisbane Coroner Doctor Kearsey Cannan, alarmed at the number of sunstroke deaths he was attending, wrote of his concerns in a letter to the Moreton Bay Courier. He first quoted from an account by the renowned General Sir Charles Napier of his personal experience of sunstroke whilst serving with the Army in India.

The subject cannot be better introduced than by quoting the late gallant General Sir Charles Napier's interesting and characteristic account of his personal seizure, when serving in Sindh.

General Sir Charles Napier
"...  I was tumbled over by the heat with apoplexy; forty-three others were struck, all Europeans, and all died within three hours, except myself!  I do not drink!  that is the secret. The sun had no ally in the liquor amongst my brains.

Unable to walk, I flung myself on a table, and luckily one of my staff came in. He called the doctors; two or three were with me in a twinkling; wet towels rolled round my head, feet in hot water; bleeding, and two men rubbing me. I was so drowsy as to be angry that they would not let me sleep. Had they done so, it would have been hard to wake me."[5]

Doctor Cannan drew attention to the main causes of the deadly effects of sunstroke: - excessive exposure to the rays and heat of the sun, the consumption of alcoholic spirits such as rum, a heavy diet, and unsuitable attire.

Sir Charles here gave expression to a physiological fact. The sun is the primary cause; the spirit ration and the abuse of ardent spirits constitute tho chief accessories. Most experienced surgeons believe that, with temperance in diet, avoidance of so much direct solar exposure as may be compatible with the nature of the service, attention to tent covering and ventilation, and to head dress and body clothing, British soldiers may be made to march well under the hottest sun of India.[6]

Station hands sporting various styles of headwear

Finally the Coroner detailed  his latest case of sunstroke he had investigated, and provided some studied  advice to colonists.

On Saturday last I was required to hold an inquest on the body of a man who had been struck to death on the previous day, from exposure to the sun. He belonged to the road party working near Woogaroo.[7]

Such, frequently, is the suddenness and fatal character of the seizure, leading so often to the speedy death of men previously in health and in the midst of active employment, that this circumstance induces me to believe that the following remarks on the means of prevention of such a fearful malady will not be considered ill-timed.

Of all the means of prevention of Heat Apoplexy, the avoidance of spirituous liquors, and of excess in the use of animal diet, must take the lead.

The next most important matter is the quality and arrangement of the dress and on this subject there can be no difference or question. The head-dress should be light, of slowly conducting materials, and constructed so as to command ventilation.[8]

European gentlemen wearing protective solar topee
He used the example of the trooper who accompanied him to point out the unsuitability of the clothing of those employed outdoors.  He notes that the unfortunate victim he examined was wearing the worst possible headwear - a tight black hat – a sure focus of solar energy.

I was accompanied by a trooper on Saturday last, whose dress I will now compare, or rather contrast, with that above recommended. He was cased in a close-fitting suit of blue cloth; head-dress, a cap of same material, barely covering the top of the head, leaving the back part totally uncovered - a peak in front sufficiently large to shade one eye at a time.

On my warning him that by exposing his head to the sun in such a manner he was courting the fate of the unfortunate man whose body we were about to view, he replied that such were the regulations, and he must obey! Comment on such a regulation is unnecessary. Publicity alone will surely put an end to such barbarity.

However, with the assistance of some green leaves placed in the cap, and damping the inside at a shady water-hole, to allay the intolerable heat, my companion - after six hours exposure to the direct solar rays-did arrive safely back again. I may here also mention that the man who had been struck to death wore a black felt hat, fitting close to the head.[9]
I am, &c.
K. CANNAN, Coroner.

Stores were quick to import proper protective headwear from India – the most efficacious thought to be the “Solar Topee”.  
Solar Topee or Pith Helmet

There was also the home-grown variety, the cabbage tree hat platted from the fronds of the cabbage palm.

Cabbage tree hat

  © K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 24 December 1853
[2] North Australian, Saturday March 17 1857
[3] 41°C
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 2 January 1858
[5] The Moreton Bay Courier Tuesday 17 January 1860
[6] The Moreton Bay Courier Tuesday 17 January 1860
[7] Now Goodna
[8] The Moreton Bay Courier Tuesday 17 January 1860
[9] The Moreton Bay Courier Tuesday 17 January 1860

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