flying doctors

Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

 Australia’s Flying Doctor Service began with the vision of Reverend John Flynn. John Flynn was born on 25 November 1880, in the gold rush town of Moliagul, about 202 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Victoria. Flynn’s first posting as a Presbyterian minister was to Beltana, a tiny, remote settlement 500 kilometres north of Adelaide. After writing a report for his church superiors on the difficulties of ministering to such a widely scattered population, he was appointed as the first Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, the ‘bush department’ of the Presbyterian Church, in 1912. Flynn served in the AIM at a time when only two doctors served an area of 300,000 sq kms in Western Australia and 1,500,000 sq kms in the Northern Territory. Realising the need for better medical care for the people of the outback, he established numerous bush hospitals and hostels.


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Flynn’s attention was caught by the story of a young stockman, Jim Darcy, who had been seriously injured while mustering stock on a cattle station near Halls Creek, in the remote north of Western Australia. Darcy had been operated on by the Halls Creek Postmaster who had to follow instructions given via telegraph by a Perth doctor. Although the postmaster’s crude operation was successful, Darcy had died almost two months later of complications, before a doctor could attend. The story gave urgency to Flynn’s vision of delivering essential medical services to remote areas.

Following this tragedy, Flynn envisaged that new technology such as radio and the aeroplane could assist in providing a more effective medical service. His speculations attracted the attention of an Australian pilot serving in World War I, Clifford Peel, who wrote to Flynn, outlining the capabilities and costs of then-available planes. Flynn turned his considerable fund-raising talents to the task of establishing a flying medical service. On 15 May 1928, the Aerial Medical Service was established at Cloncurry, in western Queensland.

In order to facilitate communication with such a service, Flynn collaborated with Alfred Traeger, who developed the pedal radio, a lighter, more compact radio for communication, readily available to more residents of the outback for its size and cost. The pedal radio eliminated the need for electricity, which was available in very few areas of the outback in the 1920s. In this way, Flynn married the advantages of both radio and aeroplanes to provide a “Mantle of Safety” for the outback. Initially conceived as a one-year experiment, Flynn’s vision has continued successfully through the years, providing a valuable medical service to people in remote areas.

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