National Archives of Australia
Series A6455, Exhibits tendered before the Royal Commission into British Nuclear Tests in Australia During the 1950s and 1960s
Item AB21, Statement and further documents listing dates of epidemics affecting aboriginal communities - Presented 18/9/85 at Sydney by Nancy Lee Sheppard
NB Date format is YYMMDD eg 570516
..AUTH: Geoff EAMES
..WTNS: SHEPPARD, Nancy Lee
Residence is 13 Salisbury Terrace, Collinswood, South Australia.
Telephone nunber 44 2410. Occupation is Home Duties.
Ms Sheppard was at Ernabella between 550000 and 620000 and then at
Fregon between 630000 and 640000. She was a School Teacher. Present
occupation is home duties.
I was 21 when I went to Ernabella. I had been teaching in Sydney
before this. I was appointed by the Presbyterian Board of Missions.
This Board was responsible for the Mission at Ernabella and had been
since about 370000 when Ernabella started.
In 550000 there were 11 white staff. There was a nurse, a craft
supervisor, a superintendent - Rev. Ron Trudinger, two station managers
(sheep), and a trade teacher.
There was a Doctor on staff from early 570000 but not when I first went
there. This was a temporary appointment.
In 550000 at a guess there would have been about 300 Aboriginal people
at any one time but this varied a lot especially at this time, because
it was before the drought which really commenced in about 570000 and
was not finally broken until the late sixties.
The movement would have been north, south, and into the western
reserve. The people at Ernabella were Pitjantjatjara and sometimes
Ngaatjatjara. These people came in groups from Western Australia, most
of them just visiting.
The northern movement was not a great deal but to Areyonga in the north
west. The people would walk there. Groups would go once a year
including women and children hunting and following water holes.
Tjilkatja ceremonies where a young man is taken before initiation from
community to community as a gesture of goodwill could go (and grow as
they went) from Areyonga to Ernabella, and across to Warburton. These
could also come from south at least as far away as from Coffin Hill and
Granite Downs. Also there would be general travel for visits. Dingo
hunting mainly took place towards the west.
I know that people would have gone south as far as Coffin Hill (which
was an important ceremonial place) and also to Fregon (as it later
became). In those days people would disappear for years including
south to Coober Pedy. People did not go to Yalata. He were isolated
from the far south places. People would visit from Welbourne Hill.
These years between 550000 and 560000 were very good years. In 570000
people came into Ernabella because of the drought which led to record
enrollments in the school and the past mobility stopped, but people
continued to move west for dingoes.
I just do not know how far south if at all, people went beyond Coffin
Hill. Once Fregon was established in 620000 it drew people from places
like Wallatinna and Welbourne Hill.
Ceremonial life was active in 550000 to 560000 and continued to be so
all the time I was there. People would also be going somewhere or
coming from somewhere for ceremonies.
In 550000 the health of the people was good but I noticed a high
incidence of congenital deformity among the children compared with the
classes of white children. I renember once that in a class of
approximately 50 to 60, we had 5 children with hand deformities. This
was in my early days but I cannot recall when it was. It was suggested
to me that this was due to in-breeding. I cannot say this was due to
the tests because the kids with their deformities were born before the
tests. There were lots of kids with impaired vision or hearing. So
their nutrition was good but they all got trachoma, leaking ears, etc.
I remember them as kids would have to leave school and attend hospital.
I met both MacDougall and McAulley. I knew MacDougall for some tine
before I met McAulley.
MacDougall's job I understood to be as a Patrol Officer from Woomera.
I saw MacDougall roughly two or three times a year but it is hard now
to recall. I understood he was to look after the interest of the
Aborigines relative to the Woomera activities. We knew about rockets.
I knew there had been bomb tests in 530000. We did not take them
seriously in those days.
Once my Pitjantjatjara became good I got into a lot of discussions with
Aboriginal men about their concern about the tests. People had heard
bangs and seen things in the sky and they talked a lot about the
morality of this. They could not understand why Christian people were
exploding bombs which could kill people. bpt.
In all my time there I never heard any suggestion that Aboriginal
people had suffered any ill effects from the bomb tests. Then again we
laughed about the precautions that MacDougall was taking because there
is no way they could have been successful in keeping people out of the
area. We had to translate signs from English.
This was not Pitjantjatjara country down south. The Aboriginal people
did not appreciate the impact of tests on the land and the animals and
we laughed at the thought of any risk.
I recall our laughing about the test being postponed until the wind
stopped blowing south and was blowing north. He used to think that
that made us pretty expendable but still we treated it as a joke.
I recall the Buffalo series in 560000. I cannot actually say that I
heard the blasts but I believe that I did and I certainly recall
Aboriginal people talking about the tests. I do not think that they
would have been discouraged from going south simply because they heard
the blasts. Aboriginal people did not see a "cause and effect"
relationship in the same way as white people, so I do not think that
they would have considered they had power over their destiny so that
they would stay away from the south to avoid trouble from the bomb
MacDougall style would have been to have approached a group of people
and told them that the Government had ordered them to stay out of the
area. He would not have spoken of health risks. I recall the 570000
series but I cannot distinguish what I saw and heard from the 560000
In 570000 I recall two Doctors coming to Ernabella on 570617. Our
Doctor absented herself deliberately because she thought that she was
being investigated because so many babies had died. Winifred Hilliard
the craft supervisor, and I saw the two Doctors and went through the
case histories as recorded in the health records. These Doctors seemed
to think it was satisfactory to just talk to us and did not wait for
the Doctor or to examine any patients or to speak to any patients.
They flew out the same day. At the time they came the deaths were
We thought it was measles and we thought they were paediatricians who
were going to tell us how to combat this epidemic. But at the end they
just said "this just seems to be the normal aftereffects of measles
among primitive people."
Afterwards we thought they may have been investigating radiation. They
never said anything about radiation but I became suspicious about their
My diary note of Tuesday 570319 records measles epidemic just starting.
I wrote, that I soppose it will go through all the children under 8
During this epidemic it was only the children who got it because all
the adults had measles in 480000 when I understood there had been a lot
of deaths, and there were a lot of orphans at Ernabella as a result.
Babies had been dying even before the epidemic, and these were
attributed to malnutrition and dehydration. Our mission would not give
rations unless people worked. There was bush tucker around, however,
so I suspected that there was some disease which they had to explain
570319 Measles epidemic seems to be starting, Just a few cases have appeared out of the blue.
570322 Nellie's baby looks simply awful, so thin and frail yet it must be 7 or 8 months old.
570327 Several more cases of measles, mostly among grade 1.
570328 Yuntjin's father died.
570329 Ngingkin's baby brother died.
570330 Nellie's baby died at Wamikata. Several more cases of measles.
570401 Still more cases of measles, about 20 children affected so far but few very badly.
570409 Punipuni's baby died.
570410 Kukika - Nyinngampa's babies died.
570411 Anngampa's baby died in Alice Springs.
570415 Yangkunyi, mother of Nyamari died - the second adult.
570423 Tjulyata's baby died in Alice Springs. The ninth.
570427 Walter MaDougall brought in 2 sick babies from Mulga Park.
570515 Utjil's and Alyana's babies died.
570516 Mayara's baby died.
570529 Yangkunyi's baby taken to Alice Springs with some peculiar lumps on its leg.
570530 Tinimai's baby died in Alice Springs.
570601 Tjuwilya's baby died.
570603 Yangkuyi's baby died at Ernabella. They are sending Nyinguta, Mary and Daisy to Adelaide with their babies on 570605. Nganyintja and her (deformed) baby are going too.
570614 Manmatja's baby died.
570615 Nyinguta's baby died in Adelaide.
570617 Mr. Bartlett and 2 Doctors from Adelaide arrived this afternoon to try to find some cause for all these deaths.
570720 Daisy's baby weighs 11 pounds at 12 months of age.
The Doctor, Dr. Jean Davies, was there at least from 570200. I
recorded a birth of a deformed child in 570300. I believe there would
have been medical records, but they were probably destroyed when the
office and store room were burnt down about 10 years ago.
I cannot say what the symptoms were that led us to conclude that the
disease was measles, but this is what the Doctor would have told me.
The Doctor left Ernabella finally at the end of 570700, and thereafter
we had a succession of Sisters.
The fact that I have not heard of the black mist is of absolutely no
significance. People at Wallatinna and Welbourne Hill did not have a
close relationship with me or with people at Ernabella. They were
regarded as southern people. Especially if the incident had happened
two years before it would have been unlikely that I would have been
told. Also Aboriginal people do not speak the names of dead people so
if anyone had died I would not have been told the names. Although I
did not hear about the “480000" measles epidemic from Aboriginal people,
this was regarded as an Ernabella event so that it was talked about,
but an episode at Wallatinna or Ernabella (editor suggests Ernabella be
deleted) would not have been cause of discussion in Ernabella.
The babies which died in 570000 did not die of measles. They seemed to
linger on and death was then said to be from malnutrition and there was
criticism of the mission for not feeding people - although in fact the
children were unable to eat. I really do not know what they died from.
There was a baby which died on 570423 in Alice Springs. Tjulyata's
baby, I have recorded it — and this baby could have had an autopsy.
Or else there was a baby who went to Alice Springs for treatment of
"peculiar lumps on its leg which were out out. This child died at
Alice Springs on 570529. The mother's name was Yangkuyi.
I have never been approached for information by anyone conducting any
health study into deaths or illness at Ernabella.
In 571000 there was also an influenza epidemic at Ernabella. There
were deaths from this epidemic. It appears to have started at Kenmore
Park and travelled to Ernabella. By the end of October it was very
bad. One adult male nearly died and the school had to be closed.
About five or six people died in this period.
I also recall a T.B. survey in 580000 but there were cases of T.B.
reported in 5T0000. The survey suggested that there were not too many
Extract from Nancy Sheppard's Diary
570301 Nganyintja miscarried at 5 months.
570302 Angkatji's baby died at Ernabella.
570925 Ukanya (son of Nyirpiwa) died of pneumonia following the flu "that everyone from Kenmore had".
570926 More people brought from Kenmore with flu.
571002 Many more flu patients. Few left to keep the place going.
571005 Relief sister arrived from Adelaide.