While researching John Flynn and his visionary work, it became apparent to me that the remarkable input of women into achieving his vision had not been given sufficient credit. In Flynn’s day, most ministers of religion did not put women in prominent positions, but Flynn did. I discussed this with Fred McKay, Flynn’s friend and successor, who agreed. In fact Fred had collected a number of articles to commemorate their heroic input and encouraged me to prepare a book to that effect. I soon discovered there was too much important information for just one book and divided it chronologically into two parts – Flynn’s Outback Angels I (Casting the Mantle) and II (Fulfilling the Vision).
I like this cover for the first of the two books. It portrays how Flynn’s nurses serving in his bush hospitals would need to take any form of transport available to reach patients – even uncomfortable camels. Epic, life-threatening journeys were part of the workaday life for these gallant women and we can only marvel at their dedication amid the heat, the dust, and the haunting loneliness. Not that their lives were always harrowing, there were many instances of funny situations and laughter. And the postage stamp with his grave in the background recognises the contribution his nurses made to spreading Flynn’s “Mantle of Safety” over the outback. Famous pioneering nurses included Jean Finlayson in Alice Springs during World War I, Minnie Kinnear patrolling the Innamincka region as a Border Nurse without a hospital and saving many lives during an epidemic, Grace Francis in Birdsville, the extraordinarily brave heroines Ruth Heathcock and Elsie Jones. And before the Second World War began, the first woman flying doctor, Jean White, the “Angel of the North” as she was dubbed, began her fine work.
As I think back over the amazing contribution of these women, others whose importance was less obvious crowd my thoughts. Certain outstanding women inspired and encouraged Flynn to follow his dreams long before the first nurse went out. His sister Rosetta was the first to believe in his vision and began raising money; Jeannie Gunn who wrote “We Of The Never Never” from her tragic experiences at Elsey Station in 1901/2 met with him often and described in detail what life was like for women on isolated stations, as did that grand lady of the Territory, Jessie Litchfield, later on. Then there were the wives he met on the outstations who always welcomed him, in part because he was a skilled handyman who could fix things for which their men had not the time or perhaps the skills. He found them desperate for his dream of “sky doctors” to become a reality because everyone knew of tragedies that had happened as a result of the unavailability of medical care. Some had lost loved ones themselves.
Ironically, the lonely bachelor who championed family life had no time to develop close relationships with women because he was always traveling. But each time he returned to his Sydney office, he found his secretary and greatest fan, Jean Baird, waiting patiently for him….