At the beginning of December 1876, John and Sarah Duff of Wellington had a family of six apparently healthy children, then one by one, over a period of 11 days beginning just three days before Christmas, five of them died, all falling victim to diphtheria.
John, a cabinetmaker, and Sarah were the pity of the town when day after day the funeral cart of undertaker W. Nicholson arrived at their Lambton Quay home to take the children’s little coffins to the Bolton Street Cemetery for internment.
The first signs of illness arrived at the Duff home on December 7, when three of the children became ill. The Duff’s decided to treat the children with home remedies, and fearing for the safety of the other children, sent the healthy ones away.
The Duff’s struggled on, but by December 21, it was clear they needed assistance from medical professionals. John sent for Drs Driver and Kemp, who arrived to find the children in an extremely unwell condition, suffering from, what Kemp described as, malignant diphtheria. That same day, one-year-old Hannah, succumbed. Her death was followed the next day by that of her eight-year-old sister Agnes. To the Duff’s relief, 10-year-old Margaret appeared to be making a recovery. On Christmas Day the other children returned to the house, but it was clearly not a day for celebration, as they too had symptoms of the disease. Three days later Margaret too died. The two doctors battled to save the two other sick children who were declining quickly, and on December 29, a third doctor was called in to advise. It was to no avail, as on January 31, 11-year-old John died, followed the next day by six-year-old Edith. The Duff’s had just one child left, three-year-old David.
Before vaccines became widely available, diphtheria was the leading cause of childhood death globally. Diphtheria is caused by bacteria, which can affect the respiratory system and may cause blocked airways, heart, nerve and kidney damage as well as paralysis. Even with today’s treatments, which include antibiotics and antitoxin, about one in 10 people who contract the illness die. Without treatment the mortality rate increases to about 50 percent.
New Zealand has had several outbreaks of the disease, the worst being in 1892 when 281 people died. The most recent outbreak was in 1941-42. According to NZ public health data, the last reported case of respiratory diphtheria in New Zealand was in 1998 in Auckland.
Despite the setback of losing so many children, John and Sarah went on to have four more children; another boy they named John in 1877, William in 1879, Arthur in 1881 and Duncan in 1883. The Duffs owned a number of properties in Wellington including the Britannia Hotel in Willis Street. In 1897, Sarah was granted a separation order from John, who had moved to Gisborne in a failed property venture. He was declared bankrupt that year and, according the newspapers, died in 1899 in St Helier, Jersey. Sarah remained in Wellington and is buried with her five young children in Bolton Street Cemetery.
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