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Australian Pioneers - Flynn of the Inland

By Edited Jan 27, 2016 0 2

The Royal Flying Doctor Service

Its Founder - John Flynn

The face on Australia's twenty-dollar note is that of the Very Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia.

John Flynn

The Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service began as one man's dream. Less than a century later, in the period ending 30 June 2010, 60 planes serviced an area of 7,150,000 km2. There were 106 patient transports and 70,116 kilometres flown. The service is now used throughout Australia to bring medical emergencies to where they can receive expert care. It has branched out into many diverse areas. An 'On The Road' team in Western Australia spreads the word in remote communities about healthy eating. Free skin cancer screenings are held throughout the Pilbara. Four-wheel drives as well as planes spread the word about healthy living and bring clinics, friendship and health to many outback areas.

RFDS Alice Springs

The service is as vital today as it ever was. Knowing that help and advice are just a call away brings comfort and peace of mind to those living in the isolated homesteads, stations, communities and missions which dot the sparsely populated interior of our big continent.

John Flynn was the visionary who wanted to spread a 'Mantle of Safety' over the vast interior of Australia. John was born in Moliagul, in Victoria to Thomas and Rosetta Flynn. He was their third child. His early days were spent as a teacher with the Victorian Education Department. In 1903, he became a missionary with the Presbyterian Church and enrolled at Ormond College in 1907 to train as a Minister. He was ordained in Adelaide, South Australia in 1911.

As he travelled by camel through the outback dispensing pastoral care to those in his 'parish', he realised the need for some way of providing a means of communication and help for these hardy souls. He witnessed their daily struggles with the harsh interior. At that time there were two doctors providing medical care for an area of almost 2 million square kilometres.

In 1912, he presented a report on life in the outback to the Home and Foreign Missions Board of the Presbyterian Church. This led to the formation of the Australian Inland Mission with Flynn at its head. One of his first tasks was the purchase of five camels for his Patrol Padres so they could go about their mission work throughout central Australia. In 1913, the first issue of the 'Inlander' was published. This quarterly magazine would continue until late in 1929. Flynn became known as 'Flynn of the Inland'.

RFDS cabin

In 1917, Flynn received an inspirational letter from a Victorian medical student, Clifford Peel. Peel's letter was to inspire Flynn. Peel had in interest in aviation and suggested the use of planes to bring medical aid to the outback. However he was never to know that his letter was instrumental in the creation of the Flying Doctor service. Clifford Peel was shot down in France and died aged just 19 years.

Flynn began to campaign for an aerial medical service.

A supporter, H V McKay, (founder of the Sunshine Harvester Company), left him a bequest. This was large enough to see the Flying Doctor Service become a reality. Meetings with Alfred Traeger, a wireless expert, and Hudson Fysh, a World War I fighter pilot and founder of QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Limited which had come into being in 1920) were also to be significant.

In 1926, the foundation of an Aerial Medical Service was approved and Traeger joined Flynn as his wireless expert. The Federal Government was urged to establish a wireless at every outback Police Station.

The following year, an agreement between Qantas and the Aerial Medical Service resulted in the operation of an aerial ambulance out of Cloncurry in Queensland.

The first plane was a single engine DeHavilland bi-plane made of timber and fabric and named 'Victory'. It was leased for two shillings per mile flown. Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch was the first doctor appointed. The plane had a cruising speed of 80 mph and could carry a pilot and four passengers. The cockpit was open. There was no radio and no navigational aids. But there was a compass!

Victory flew 110,000 miles before being replaced by Qantas with a DH83 Fox Moth. The first flight was to Julia Creek where it was met by over 100 people. In its first year, the Aerial Medical Service flew 50 flights and treated 225 patients. Pilots found their way by following river beds, fence- or telegraph-lines and familiar landmarks. Airstrips were usually claypans (if Arthur was lucky) or hastily cleared paddocks. Later fuel dumps would be established at strategic outstations.

The catchword for the Aerial Medical Service was 'Mantle of Safety'.

Although there was now a doctor, a plane and a pilot, communication was still difficult and sometimes impossible. Traeger had been working on improving communications and in 1929, a pedal-operated generator was trialled. The generator powered a radio receiver and suddenly people living in isolation had the means by which they could call for help.

Later transistorised receivers replaced pedal radios and doctors were able to give radio consultations. After normal transmission hours, the widespread community had the chance to exchange news and greetings during the 'galah' session.

By using the same network, it was now possible to establish the School of the Air, giving isolated children the chance to interact with their far-distant classmates and teacher.

At age 51, Flynn married Miss Jean Baird. She was to be of great support to him in his work. In 1933, Flynn was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE)

Air/ground radio communication was soon possible. The radio-telephone was introduced in 1934 and by 1939 the Service was operating in all states.

In 1951, Sister Lucy Garlick created the Body Chart which is still used to help patients describe the region and intensity of their condition during a telephone consultation.

The name of the service was changed to 'Flying Doctor Service' in 1942 and to the 'Royal Flying Doctor Service' in 1955.

The Flynn Memorial Church was opened in Alice Springs in 1956.

John Flynn died of cancer in 1951. Remote stations and settlements across the outback were able to link up for his funeral service. His ashes were ultimately placed under the Flynn Memorial at Mount Gillen, centre of the vast area now made much smaller by Flynn's 'mantle of safety'.



Mar 30, 2011 12:07am
You make your country come alive for me when I read your articles. Very interesting article!
Mar 30, 2011 12:16am
Thanks westernmom. Half this stuff I didn't know myself till I researched it, which is pretty sad. I've decided I'm probably quite patriotic after all, following many years of thinking I wasn't!
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