John Flynn

Australia Between The Wars

John Flynn was born near Bendigo in Victoria in November 1880 into a middleclass family. His father was a
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schoolteacher, and at the end of his own time at school John Flynn, then sixteen, decided to join the Presbyterian Church. He studied theology at the University of Melbourne and in 1911 he was ordained as a minister. As a boy, Flynn had already visited the Northern Territory, and in 1912 he was sent by the Church to report on what could be done to assist the people of the Outback. As a result of his report, called Northern Territory and Central Australia - A Call to the Church, the Church set up the Australian Inland Mission. Flynn was appointed superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, a position he held until his death in 1951. The aim of the Mission was to provide spiritual and practical support to the people who lived in the vast outback areas of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The Flying Doctor Service

John Flynn was well aware of the hardships and challenges of living in the Outback and he knew that one of the greatest hardships was inadequate medical services. He set up a number of nursing centres in remote inland towns, but an incident in 1917 made clear the need for better medical services.
In August 1917 the nation followed in the newspapers the story of Jimmy Darcy, a stockman who had been thrown from his horse at the remote Ruby Plains Station in the Northern Territory. It took twelve hours to get Darcy to the nearest town. There were no doctors in the area, so a doctor in Perth, using morse code on the telegraph, instructed the local postmaster, who had some first aid knowledge, how to perform an operation for a ruptured bladder.

The operation, without anaesthetic or instruments, took seven hours. Over the next few days Darcy’s health deteriorated, and he died a day before a doctor finally made it to the town. As a result of the Darcy case, a medical student, John Clifford Peel from Victoria, wrote to Flynn suggesting the use of aeroplanes to take medical services to people in remote locations. The idea of air transport in the 1920s was still very new, but Flynn embraced the idea of bringing the doctor to the patient even when the patient lived on an isolated station. John Flynn worked hard and long to establish the Flying Doctor Service.

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Rev. Fred McKay operating the pedal radio

In 1920 the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service (Qantas) had been set up and Flynn began with an aircraft from this new airline. In 1926 Flynn’s mission also received a generous bequest in the will of his
friend H. V. McKay, whose Sunshine Harvester Company had been involved in the basic wage case of 1907. In 1928, after years of work, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was born. It was based in the Queensland town of Cloncurry, and in its first year the service treated 255 patients.

Outback communication
Another way to break the isolation of the outback was by the use of radio. Although radio (or wireless, as it was called) was still relatively new in Australia in the 1920s, Flynn supported the development of the pedal radio. A pedal-operated generator provided the electricity for the radio transmitter and receiver, which allowed communication over long distances. By the early 1930s the pedal radio was in common use. It not only enabled isolated Australians to contact the Flying Doctor Service in an emergency but it also allowed communication between outback stations and between stations and the regional towns.

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School of the Air
In time the radio technology made possible the introduction of the School of the Air, which allowed children on outback stations to have lessons with a teacher hundreds of kilometres away.

‘A mantle of safety’

One man who knew John Flynn, or “Flynn of the Inland”, as he was called, was the Rev. Fred McKay. ‘He had a deep practical concern about the needs of bush people,’ said McKay, ‘and the graves in the inland of people who should never have died worried him.’ Flynn himself wanted to provide the Outback with what he called a ‘mantle of safety’, and by the time Flynn died in 1951 this had been achieved, with thirteen flying doctor bases around Australia covering 80 per cent of the continent


Mason, K.J., Experience of nationhood : modern Australia since 1901, South Melbourne, Cengage Learning Australia, 2010.
Webb, K., Discovering Australian history. Stage 5, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 200