Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.

The death of Anna Wood 1995

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The death of Anna Wood 1995

Anna Wood was a 15 year old former student of Forest High School who died in October 1995 after taking an MDMA or ‘ecstasy’ tablet at a rave. After telling her parents that she was at a friend’s house, Anna and a group of school friends attended a dance party at the Phoenician Club in Ultimo. Anna was found vomiting in the club’s bathrooms at 5am, when her concerned friends took her home and put her to bed. Her condition worsened and following her removal to the Royal North Shore Hospital, Anna was pronounced brain dead and her life support turned off.[1]

An extensive post mortem was undertaken to determine the exact cause of Anna’s death for the coronial investigation. Led by Deputy State Coroner John Abernethy and Dr Paul Botterill of the NSW Institute of Forensic Medicine, the examination utilised advice from a British doctor with extensive experience with MDMA-associated deaths.[2] Dr John Henry of Guy’s Hospital, London, also reviewed the final report, which paralleled a recent case in Britain.

Ultimately, Abernethy decided to dispense with a formal inquest in June 1996, instead presenting his findings publicly at the Glebe Coroner’s Court after extensive consultation with the Wood family. Abernethy stated his reasoning as a wish to clear up any misinformation or disputes that were circulating in the media.[3] The investigation found that Anna had died due to acute water intoxication, secondary to the ingestion of the drug MDMA. The drug had caused her kidney function to restrict, making it impossible to rid her system of excess water. This led to cerebral oedema (brain swelling) and death. Abernethy made clear that these findings show that MDMA was the catalyst for Anna’s death.

The coroner completed his presentation of findings with a recommendation to educate young people further about the consequences of ingesting illegal drugs, with a section specifically addressing the appropriate care of anyone who had fallen ill from taking a banned substance.[4]

Following the delivery of his findings, Abernethy stepped down from the bench and hugged Anna’s mother.[5]

A moral panic spread throughout Australia at the news of Anna’s death, with parents aghast at the concept of their children and the seeming horrors of the youth drug culture. This intense debate was fanned by media storms and the presence of Anna’s parents, who channelled grief for their daughter into a relentless campaign against youth drug use. In 1997 the NSW Code of Practice for Dance Parties was published, which outlined mandatory chill rooms and free water for dance clubs.[6] Abernethy’s findings did little to stem the tide of outrage, with the Wood family frequently appearing in the media in the following decades to denounce illicit drug use.


[1] Bronwyn Donaghy, 1996. Anna’s Story: Anna Wood, the Facts, the Fury, the Future (Sydney: Angus & Robertson)

[2] Deputy State Coroner John Abenethy, 1995. Reasons for dispensing with inquest. NSW Coroner’s Court.

[3] Deputy State Coroner John Abenethy, 1995. Reasons for dispensing with inquest. NSW Coroner’s Court.

[4] Deputy State Coroner John Abenethy, 1995. Reasons for dispensing with inquest. NSW Coroner’s Court

[5] ‘Hug ends anguish for Woods’, The Daily Telegraph, 19 June 1996, accessed 23 November 2020 https://erowid.org/chemicals/mdma/mdma_health5.shtml

[6] Chris Gibson and Rebecca Pagan, 2000. ‘Rave culture in Sydney, Australia: mapping youth spaces in media discourse’. Youth-Sound-Space, accessed 23 November 2020 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242097718_Rave_culture_in_Sydney_Australia_mapping_youth_spaces_in_media_discourse