With Covid-19, just breathing in and out can be dangerous. The breath spreads the contagion just like with another disease common in the 19th century and for which there was no vaccine or cure. Tuberculosis, then known as Consumption, was a major enfeebler and killer. Not understanding that it was spread on the breath, people didn’t wear masks, keep physical distance, disinfect, or engage in good cough etiquette. And just like the Covid-19 frontline care workers who are especially at risk, so were the close contacts of sufferers, such as maids or servants, who often caught the disease themselves. Understandably, Consumption was greatly feared and for anyone to deliberately dedicate a substantial portion of their life to the care of consumptive patients was an act of bravery, love, and trust in God.
It is September 1877. Isabella Price, a 47-year-old widow who has recently arrived in Sydney, is job hunting by reading through the local newspaper. One advertisement stands out:
Wanted, a MATRON for the CONSUMPTIVE HOME, Picton: must be a member of an Evangelical Church. Apply by letter only, to Mr Goodlet, 483, George-street.
Isabella knows this job will inevitably carry significant risk as extended exposure to consumptives will greatly increase her chance of contracting this deadly disease. She also knows that for many such exposure will result in death while for others, rather mysteriously, they’ll show no signs of consumption. As she considers applying, there’s no way Isabella can know into which group she’ll fall. She needs a job, a place to live and is keen, as she’s been from her youth, to share her knowledge of Jesus so she decides to write to Mr Goodlet; he and Mrs Goodlet offer her the job, and she takes it. Living with up to 18 consumptives will put her in harm’s way, but she’ll trust God now as she’s done in the past. What Isabella doesn’t know is that for some who contract tuberculosis, it will lie dormant within their body – it doesn’t break out and they don’t suffer the usual path of a debilitating decline to death.
Isabella is resilient, her life moulded by many difficulties. Born in Calcutta, India, in 1830 to European parents, her father dies when she’s just one and her mother when she’s seven. When she’s 14 her stepfather dies and she and her five-year-old stepsister Elizabeth are placed in an orphanage where, only two years later, Elizabeth dies. At sixteen, Isabella is completely alone.
It would be understandable if Isabella thought life had been unkind to her and that God wasn’t interested in her. This wasn’t the case, however, as she responded to the Anglican bible teaching of the orphanage and embraced a true Christian faith with a desire to share the good news of Jesus. Isabella trained as a teacher and had a particular skill that marked her out – she was fluent in both English and Bengali. This led to her being selected to join a ground-breaking Free Church ministry to Indian Bengali-speaking women in Calcutta.
Life for these 19th century Indian women, especially if they were from a high-caste Hindu or Muslim family, was hard and young girls were often married-off in childhood, becoming the property of their husbands. They were confined to the women’s quarters of their husband’s family, which were called ‘zenanas’, where they received neither education nor adequate medical care. Being able to speak Bengali meant that Isabella could go into these closed enclaves as a missionary. Each morning, her horse-drawn gharry would call for her and she and a young assistant would visit a zenana to give the women lessons and to share the teachings of the Bible.
In 1857, Isabella’s ministry and life, along with those of other Indian and European Christians, was threatened by an uprising against the British during which many men, women and children were slaughtered. She took refuge from the carnage in the Agra Fort and endured a three-month siege during which time she met John Price, a sub-engineer on the East India Railway. They were married in 1858 and John continued to work for the Railway until his death in India around 1874. They had no children and Isabella came to Australia to begin a new life.
Isabella was appointed as the first matron of the 18-bed sanitarium/hospice in a former hotel at Picton which had been leased by John and Ann Goodlet. The only requirement for admission was poverty and consumption as all costs were covered, even the burial costs of the men and women who died. There was such a great demand for places that the Goodlets decided to construct a purpose-built facility at Thirlmere which would cater for 40 patients; it was opened in 1886.
While John and Ann planned and paid for the facility, the person who ran the institution on a daily basis was Isabella and she was matron for 17 years until she retired in 1894. During those years, she was dedicated to looking after the residents, often sitting by the bedside of the dying at all hours of the day and night, and she had to cope with the deaths of some 240 patients she’d nursed. Her task was not merely that of management and nursing as John and Ann intended her to have a spiritual ministry, and her work was highly esteemed by them and the patients. Her contemporaries considered that her work was done at considerable risk to her own health, a risk of which she was reminded when her much younger assistant matron died after catching the disease.
When John and Ann Goodlet died, much was made of their generosity towards the poor consumptive but at Isabella’s death in 1920, there was no public recognition of her contribution which, though unnoticed and subsequently forgotten, was considerable. It would not have been forgotten by her Lord, however, and “Well done good and faithful servant” ought to be sufficient approval for any follower of Jesus.