Art Mar­ket

A medal cel­e­brates the un­selfish courage of two Sis­ters who bat­tled plague in Hong Kong

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Huon Mal­lalieu

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

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