World Facts

The Deadliest Disasters Of Australia

The 1918 flu pandemic claimed thousands of lives in Australia and was also responsible for several fatalities in other parts of the world.


Throughout its past, Australia has faced a number of disasters which have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. These disasters range from natural to manmade in nature, although they all share something in common - a significant mark on the history of this country. This article takes a closer look at some of the deadliest disasters of Australia.

Flu Pandemic

Between January of 1918 and December of 1920, the world was hit by the deadly H1N1 flu virus. Approximately 3 to 5% of the world’s population was lost during this time. Countries all over the world suffered from this pandemic, including remote islands and frozen landscapes. Australia was no exception. This virus, as with most flu viruses, claimed an excessive number of older, juvenile, and immuno-compromised patients. It is believed that this particular flu strain was so deadly because it caused rapid respiratory failure. In Australia alone, 12,000 people died as a result of the flu, making this the worst disaster to ever occur in this country.

Polio Epidemic

The second deadliest disaster of Australia is the polio epidemic. Polio is a disease that has caused death and paralysis around the world for centuries. Epidemics were not reported, however, until the beginning of the 20th century in Europe. From there, the polio epidemic made its way to the United States and finally, to Australia. Although polio existed in Australia at the beginning of the century, the majority of polio-related deaths occurred here between 1946 and 1955. In response to this disease, several therapies and treatments were created and implemented. The most well-known of these was created by Australian Sister Kenny, who is now known as the person who laid the foundation for modern physiotherapy. A reported 1,013 individuals lost their lives due to polio. Today, around 16,000 survivors continue to live in Australia, all with different levels of paralysis.

Battle Of The HMAS Sydney And The Kormoran

The third deadliest disaster of Australia is not a naturally occurring event, but rather manmade. On November 19, 1947, the battle between the Australian light cruiser HMAS Sydney and the German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran resulted in 727 lives lost. This disaster occurred off the coast of Western Australia, around 122 miles from the Dirk Hartog Island.

When the Australian ship asked the Kormoran to identify itself, the German ship responded that it was a merchant ship with cargo. After several minutes of not responding to further questioning, the German ship revealed its true identity and shots were fired from both ships almost simultaneously. The shooting continued for 30 minutes, at the end of which, both ships had caught fire and were badly damaged. All 645 crew members on board the Sydney were killed when the ship sank. Of the 399 on board the Kormoran, 82 were killed and 317 were captured. In total, 727 lives were lost in this disaster.

Bubonic Plague

The fourth-deadliest disaster to ever hit Australia was the Bubonic plague during the first decade of the 20th century. The Bubonic plague was a bacterial infection that caused headache, fever, vomiting, and swollen lymph nodes that sometimes broke open. It is believed by many researchers to have caused the Black Death during the 14th century. The Bubonic plague is most commonly spread via infected fleas. This connection was made by Australian medical researchers.

The Bubonic plague made its way around the world for a third time beginning in the mid 20th century, killing thousands of people. It was first recorded in Australia in 1900 and is believed to have arrived in Sydney through the shipping trade. This country suffered 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. Although Sydney was the hardest hit, it was not the only city in Australia to lose live to the plague. After Sydney, it was recorded in North Queensland, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Fremantle. By the time the Bubonic plague had been largely eradicated in Australia, approximately 550 people had died.

Heatwave In Victoria

Beginning in December of 1938 and lasting through February of the following year, Victoria, Australia experienced one of its hottest heatwaves on record. These temperatures resulted in the fifth deadliest disaster to occur in this country. In Canberra, for example, daily highs hit 98.3° fahrenheit for 3 days straight and the city received no relief at night, when temperatures only dropped to 70°. More extreme temperatures were recorded in Walgett (111°), Bourke (112°), and Wilcannia (115°). Unable to escape the heat, 438 individuals lost their lives that summer. The heatwave also caused the Black Friday bushfires in Victoria, remembered as one of the worst wildfires in history. These fires claimed an additional 71 people and destroyed several towns as well.

Heatwave In Southeastern Australia

Southeastern Australia experienced its own heatwave in the summer of 1895 to 1896, before the heatwave of Victoria mentioned previously. During this heatwave, temperatures reached over 120° fahrenheit for 10 consecutive days. In January of 1896, the average temperature recorded for the city of Bourke hit 110°. Comments from people who survived the heatwave compare it to living in a furnace. People died while simply walking through the streets, many more were rushed to the hospital. Large crowds of people left the cities in trains headed to the mountains just to escape the heat. The government even offered discounted prices so that more people could find cooler temperatures. By the third week in January, 12 babies had died due to the heat. By the fourth week of the month, hundreds of cattle died and water storage units were running dry. By the end of the heatwave, the country had lost 437 people, making this the sixth deadliest disaster in Australia’s history.

Cyclone Mahina

The seventh deadliest disaster in Australia is the Cyclone Mahina, which is also on record as the deadliest cyclone to occur in Australia. This cyclone was a Category 5, the strongest of the tropical cyclone categories. Cyclone Mahina hit Bathurst Bay of Cape York on March 4, 1899 after causing a fleet of pearling ships and a number of schooners to wreck into the coast. The cyclone caused a 43-foot storm surge at Princess Charlotte Bay that reached around 3 miles inland, completely destroying everything in its path. It also caused a surge that wiped out a camp at Barrow Point, which is located 40 feet above sea level. Cyclone Mahina continued to Cape York Peninsula and the Gulf of Carpentaria, lasting for a total of 6 days. Records indicate 283 deaths as a result of this cyclone. However, around 100 indigenous people were also killed and not included in the count because they were not considered part of the population during that time. Final estimates are at 410 deaths.

The Deadliest Disasters Of Australia

11918 Flu PandemicAustralia-wide12,000+1918–1920
2Polio EpidemicAustralia-wide10131946–1955
3Battle between HMAS Sydney and German auxiliary cruiser Kormoran.Indian Ocean, near Shark Bay7271941 Nov 19
4Bubonic PlagueAustralia-wide5501900–1910
5Deadly HeatwaveVictoria4381938 Dec – Feb 1939
6Deadly HeatwaveSouth-eastern Australia4371895–1896
7Cyclone MahinaBathurst Bay, Queensland4101899 Mar 4
8Wreck of the CataraquiKing Island, Tasmania4061845
9Deadly HeatwaveSouth-eastern Australia3742009 Jan 25 – 9 Feb
10Sinking of Dutch ship Zuytdorp.Near Murchison River, Western Australia2861712 Apr


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