The History of the Royal Flying Doctor Service

History, culture and landscapes are continuing themes on an escorted small group tour from Odyssey for mature and senior travellers couples and singles. The Royal Flying doctor adds to to the travellers knowledge of outback Australia history.

29 Dec 21 · 8 mins read

The Royal Flying Doctor Service History

On 17 May 1928, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was born, taking its first flight across the skies of Cloncurry, Queensland, on a life-saving mission. Since then, thousands, if not millions, of similar flights have taken place, supplying both emergency and primary health care to rural, remote, and regional areas of Australia where doctors are few and communications difficult.

The plan for this type of service was conceived in 1912 by the Reverend John Flynn, superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) of the Presbyterian Church, who working in outback isolated regions, had witnessed the tragedies that could result in communities far from reliable medical care. Aided by fledging technologies in flight and radio, the organisation expanded rapidly from the 1930s with services and bases across the country, growing to be one of the largest and most comprehensive aeromedical organisations in the world today.

Cancelled Stamp From Australia Featuring The Royal Flying Doctor Service

Reverend John Flynn’s Work in the Outback

The man behind the formation and early growth of the RFDS was Reverend John Flynn, a minister who had spent many years in rural and remote areas, setting up hostels and hospitals to care for settlers.

He began his work in February 1911, arriving at Beltana in South Australia, about 300 miles north of Adelaide, where medical care was unavailable to the inland residents and travellers. He was appointed Superintendent of the newly established AIM a year later following his report about the conditions of the outback to the Presbyterian Church. Over the next few years, the AIM would establish several hospitals, nursing homes and recruit ministers to travel to vast outback parishes by camel or horseback, visiting communities and households and tending to the people of the land.

It was during these years that Reverend Flynn witnessed the daily struggle of pioneers and came to understand the tragedies that could result when those living far from established communities were unable to access reliable medical care. Even the new hospitals in bush communities could not help those who lived far from any community. If someone was seriously injured, they would have to travel hundreds of kilometres by horse, cart, or camel to reach a doctor, often dying on the journey there.

The Impact of Jimmy Darcy’s Death

The fate of Jimmy Darcy, a Kimberley Stockman, is one pertinent example of the tragic circumstances that befell several bush settlers. Having suffered massive internal injuries on 29 July 1917, when his horse fell in a cattle stampede, he had to be transported 80 kilometres (12 hours) away to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek. Here, the Postmaster Fred Tuckett, had to perform emergency surgery with the help of morse code, a penknife, and some morphine.

The operation was a success but Darcy remained weak, now suffering from malaria, and in urgent need of medical care. Dr Joe Holland, a doctor from Perth, was called in but the journey to Halls Creek would not be an easy one. He first boarded a cattle ship that took an agonising week to reach Derby, from where he bumped across the desert over the next six days in a Model T Ford held together by leather straps. Enduring punctures, radiator leaks and engine shutters, the car finally broke down 40km from Halls Creek. Holland finished the journey by walking two hours to a nearby cattle station from where he took a horse-drawn carriage, only to reach the town hours after Darcy had died.

Reverend Flynn was so deeply affected by Darcy’s death that he vowed to provide a “mantle of safety”, as he termed it, for the people living, working, and travelling in the outback.

The Idea to Use Aircraft

It was from the stories such as Darcy’s that Flynn, and his following at the AIM, became inspired to develop a route of communications and transport that could solve the problems of remoteness. However, no feasible technology seemed immediately apparent. There remained no easy method of contracting a doctor for advice, and if the problem was serious, overland transport was slow and arduous.

The problem of transport would soon by solved, however, by Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a young medical students and pilot shipping out to the war in France. In 1917, having heard Flynn’s public speeches, Peel wrote to him explaining how he had seen a missionary doctor visiting isolated patents using a plane, which at the time were very novel machines, and so suggested the use of aviation to bring medical care to the wide-spread areas of the Australian Outback.

Assisted by costing estimates by Peel, Flynn immediately took to the idea of using aircraft. Sadly, Peel was shot down and killed the following year, not knowing that his letter would become the blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

An Aerial Experiment

For the next ten years, Flynn campaigned to persuade the Church and the public of the benefits of “flying doctors” for inland Australia. In 1922, he formally established the Aerial Medical Services (AMS) Fund and commenced fundraising activities. And finally, on May 15, 1928, with the help of a large bequest left by long-time supporter Hugh Victor McKay for ‘an aerial experiment’, he was able to open the RFDS, then known as the Aerial Medical Service.

Cloncurry in north-western Queensland was chosen as the first base for the operation. It had previously been evaluated by Dr. George Simpson, a young Presbyterian doctor from Melbourne and medical advisor to the AIM, as a suitable location due to the reasonable telegraphic network and hospital there. Also, Hudson Fysh, a founder of QANTAS, had already established a base there for his airline company and agreed to lease an aircraft and pilot for the fledging organisation.

On 17 May 1928, two days after inception, pilot Arthur Affleck took off from Cloncurry to travel 85 miles to Julia Creek Bush Nursing Post in Central Queensland for the service’s first official flight. The aircraft was a de Hallivand DH-50A dubbed “Victory” – a single engine timber and fabric biplane, which cruised at 80 miles an hour and could carry, apart from the pilot, a doctor, a nurse, and a patient.

The first flying doctor of the service was Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch, an established Sydney surgeon. In the first year Welch made 50 flights to treat 225 people, and undertook a number of other clinical flights, travelling 18 000 nautical miles (33000 km) in total.

The Use of Radio

The experiment was a success, although there were still some problems. The entire first year, the service had operated without an effective method of communicating over long-distances, relying on telephone links between settlements and on people still physically travelling long distances for help. What was still needed to successfully establish regular long-distance medical consultation and the flying of doctors to patients in emergences was a cheap, reasonably portable, reliable, and fool proof form of communication.

Together, with Adelaide electrical engineer Alfred Traeger, Reverend Flynn had begun experiments with radio in the 1920s to enable remote outposts to contact a centralised medical base. The pedal-driven Morse radio transceiver with a range of 300 miles was the result of this collaboration. By 1929, the technology was advanced enough to establish a radio station at the Cloncurry Base radio station operative and radio transceivers were distributed gradually to stations, missions, and other human residences around Cloncurry. This greatly increased the number of calls received and miles flown each year.

The problems of using Morse Code were soon overcome by the design of an “automatic keyboard” in 1932, a typewriter-like device which sent the correct codes when each key was pressed. A radio was installed in the aircraft in 1934, allowing it to keep in regular communication with the ground. And eventually, by 1936, transmission of speech was also possible.

A Success Story

The service persisted through difficult first years having to deal with the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, the growth of the service made heavy demands on available funds, and the service had to rely on community fundraising, volunteer support and donations, as it still does today. While some Government financial aid was made available on occasions during these early days, it wasn’t until later on that both Federal and State Government subsidies became an established practice.

In 1932, the success from its operations in Cloncurry, and the increasing public awareness of this vital rural service, resulted in a push for a national network of flying doctors. As such, the Australian Aerial Medical Services (AAMS) was formed in September 1933, and throughout the 1930s, aerial medical services were started in local committees in each state (except Tasmania). Bases were set up in Wyndham, , Port Hedland, Kalgoorlie, Broken Hill, Alice Springs and Meekatharra, and the Queensland experiment expanded with two additional bases opening in Charters Tower and Charleville. These bases later formed the Federal Council for the organisation in 1936.

In 1942, the service was renamed the “Flying Doctor Service,” and in 1955, the Queen of England granted the use of the Royal prefix.

The RFDS today has a fleet of 71 aircraft operating from 23 bases across the country making it Australia’s third largest airline. The service makes the equivalent of 25 round trips to the Moon each year, providing emergency aeromedical and essential primary health care to more than 280,000 patients.

Reverend Flynn died in 1951 but as he once famously said: “If you start something worthwhile, nothing can stop it.”

Tour of John Flynn Place Museum & Gallery

Reverend John Flynn on the background of the Australian 20 dollars note

Flynn’s achievements and the beginnings of the Royal Flying Doctor Service are now commemorated at the John Flynn Place Museum & Gallery in Cloncurry. The museum also plays tribute to the amazing work of Alfred Traeger, the inventor of the pedal radio, as well as Allan Vickers, the medical superintendent in Cloncurry (1931-1934).

Incorporated within the museum is the Fred McKay Art Gallery, named after Flynn’s successor, which houses an impressive art collection, acquired largely through Cloncurry’s annual Ernest Henry Memorial Art Show.

The gardens of John Flynn Place Museum incorporate a Cloister of Plaques commemorating the life and work of pioneer radio engineers and radio operators, the original flying doctors, the first aerial medical pilots and early patrol padres.

Odyssey visits Cloncurry and conducts a tour of John Flynn Place Museum & Gallery as part of our 19-day Tour of Queensland. During this tour we discover the big skies, stunning pastoral and desert landscapes, and fascinating history of the outback communities of western Queensland with a tour guide. Our small group tours of the Australian outback in Queensland begin and end in Brisbane. We head west into Queensland and back, pausing along the way to explore and learn at each stop on day tour (s) with local guides, as we travel west then up into North Queensland then south back to Brisbane. This escorted tour is suitable for the mature and senior traveller whether as a couple or solo traveller.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit Outback Queensland:

Published Dec 2020, updated December 2021

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