John Flynn – of Flying Doctors


John Flynn – of Flying Doctors

John Flynn was one of the greatest visionaries of his era, indeed of any era anywhere in the world.

When serving as a young Christian missionary in the parched, vast wilderness of South Australia during the early years of the twentieth century, his heart was torn by the needless grief and pain he saw. Men, women and children often suffered terribly from accidents or diseases, sometimes dying without any medical attention at all. Much of this trauma could have been avoided if only medical help was at hand! But the tyranny of distance prevented that. On the Birdsville Track in 1912 unbidden words had come into his mind; “The wings of death are swifter than camels or horses.” He pondered this strange expression, and wondered whether aeroplanes might not one day prove even swifter than the “wings of death” and be able to bring help to at least some of those suffering without medical attention. But even if they could, how could the poor people of the bush call for their aid?

Desperately searching for a solution, he envisioned  wireless calls from the bush contacting “sky doctors”, who would fly in  by plane to tend to the sick, perhaps even ferry them back to hospitals. When he proposed this idea, planes were considered dangerous toys and the powerful wireless sets he would require would be prohibitively expensive. He was laughed at.

Unable to pursue his dream directly, Flynn doggedly set about tackling the practical problems as best he could. Amongst other measures, he produced a string of cottage hospitals staffed by Christian nurses that became famous throughout the bush because of the outstanding service they provided. Meanwhile, he studied wireless himself to try to solve the daunting problems of giving isolated men and women a voice. A gifted young friend, Alfred Traeger, joined him in the search. Year after year they toiled along with others while the tragedies in the outback mounted. Most men would have given up in the face of seemingly impossible odds, but not Flynn. He was certain that his dream would ultimately be fulfilled.

It was – but not without first overcoming apparently impossible odds. The simple cheap wireless set Traeger produced, for example, was far in advance of anything similar anywhere else in the world at that time.

Flynn’s concept of an aero-medical service for outback areas linked to hospitals by wireless has been exported to many parts of the world. In Australia, the outcome is called the Royal Flying Doctor Service and enjoys the highest reputation across the nation.

I enjoyed greatly my research for this book, primarily because Flynn’s successor and close friend, Fred McKay AC, CMG, OBE, helped me in every way he could. Fred himself was an extraordinary man with an outstanding memory for detail. He also guided me to  fresh information that I wanted, or to people who could supply it . Without Fred’s input, John Flynn would have remained enigmatic to me and to the thousands who have read this book.