A medal celebrates the unselfish courage of two Sisters who battled plague in Hong Kong
Huon Mallalieu remembers the bravery of two nuns in a Hong Kong plague
IN a despatch dated May 4, 1898, the Hong Kong correspondent of the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote: ‘In Hong Kong plague is on the increase. Up to noon on May 2nd we have had 712 cases and 632 deaths. The returns for the week ended April 30 are 191 cases and 114 deaths, as against 127 cases and 109 deaths in the previous week. “Sister Frances,” Miss Elizabeth Frances Higgin, died from plague on April 29. She joined the Government Civil Hospital here in 1890, was all through the plague epidemic in 1894, and is certainly a martyr to duty. On the 28th it was evident that she was suffering from the worst form of the disease, and she became rapidly worse and died at two o’clock the following morning. The funeral took place the same afternoon, and was attended by nearly all Hong Kong, while a gloom spread over the whole place when the news of her sad fate became known.’
It continues: ‘One seldom hears more than a passing mention of these noble women who unselfishly risk their lives as did Sister Frances, but we in Hong Kong know and feel that our nursing sisters, in these times of plague, require and exhibit more courage than a dozen Pipers of Dargai [Sergeant George Findlater of the Gordon Highlanders who had recently won the VC in India], and knowing this we honor them for the noble lives they lead. Yet Sister Frances will be forgotten by the world in a week, if indeed anyone outside Hong Kong ever hears of her, while the fame of the Piper of Dargai will be remembered for a generation!’
The Ulster-born Sister Frances had been awarded the Hong Kong Plague Medal for her work in 1894 when sickness first struck the colony, as had her colleague Sister Gertrude—miss Emma Gertrude Ireland—who died of plague just a week after her. This outbreak of plague, known as the Third Pandemic (the First began in 541 during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the Second was the Black Death in the 1340s) began in the Chinese province of Yunnan in 1855 and, by the World Health Organisation’s reckoning, continued endemic in Hong Kong until 1939 and to be active elsewhere until 1959.
There had been 2,500 deaths in Hong Kong in 1894 and 80,000 people fled the colony amid serious civil unrest. Matters were still worse in parts of India a few months later. However, there was one positive aspect: a young Franco-swiss scientist called Alexandre Yersin, who had gone to Hong Kong to help, made a longsought discovery. He identified the plague bacillus, pointing to the eventual prevention and cure of the disease. The bacillus was later named in his honour: Yersinia pestis.
Alas, however, this did not make 1894 or even 1898 the plague to end all plagues, any
Fig 2: Chinese porcelain wu-cai or five-colour vase. £913,200
Fig 1: Sister Frances’s Hong Kong Plague Medal, one of only 40 struck in gold. £24,780