Royal Flying Doctor Service

It may seem strange that a mission established at Beltana in the far north of South Australia during the last century, was one of several factors leading to the birth of the Royal Flying Doctor. In 1839 Henrietta Smith of Dunesk, Scotland, bought some land in South Australia and had it rented out, later the funds were administered by the Colonial Committee of the Free Church of Scotland for the benefit of the aborigines.

Smith was told that the Aborigines were a dying race and that her money, if used for that purpose, would be a waste. Although a little of it was used for the Point McLeay Mission this was stopped in 1896. Most of the money was never used and accumulated interest in the bank. Eventually this money became available to the Presbyterian Church and was used to establish the Smith of Dunesk Mission at Beltana.

John Flynn, Aborigine, plane and camel, all closely associated with the mantle of safety
for the inland, now on the Australian $20 note. Flynn was also nominated in the
Advertiser's search for the top 100 Australian heroes.

The Mission at Beltana was started by the Rev Robert Mitchell in 1894, not for the Aborigines but for all the people in the north. While stationed at Port Augusta he became aware of the largely unfulfilled religious, medical and social needs of the station, farming and mining people of the outback.

Mitchell was a remarkable man. His ministry at Port Augusta had been pioneering, arduous, trying, but fulfilling. It stood him in good stead for the work to be done from Beltana. Past experience with a printing press, which he now owned, considerable ability in photography, his childhood spent on a farm where he learned to handle horses, all aided him in his travels across his vast parish and brought a new dimension to the lives of some families living in isolated conditions.

He extracted teeth, stitched gashes, advised on pneumonia and sunstroke, set broken limbs, used the lancet and the thermometer. He patched walls, ceilings and floors for the old and infirm living in run-down cottages, made bags, rugs and boxes to suit the trap he designed and had specially built. Later he helped the blacksmith making new springs for the same trap and learnt to shoe horses, give reading lessons and to build sheds.

The life of a missionary in outback South Australia was not an easy one. In one year Mitchell travelled 4,450 km by road, 4,864 km by rail, paid 1319 visits, held 218 services, baptised 32 children and celebrated two marriages. Years later he described how he, and the later churchmen, travelled around using any kind of transport available, be it train, car, horse, mule or camel.

When he left the north the mission was well established and ably carried on by those who came after him. The Rev F.W. Rolland pushed the ideas of Mitchell one step further. His untiring efforts to provide medical services eventually resulted in Sister E.A. Main being stationed at Oodnadatta, a thousand kilometres north of Adelaide, in 1907. When John Flynn arrived at Beltana in 1911 plans were well in hand for the building of a medical hostel at Oodnadatta. It was officially opened by Rev Robert Mitchell on 10 December 1911.

John Flynn was born at Moliagul, a Victorian mining town, on 25th November 1880. His parents were, Thomas Eugene Flynn, a school teacher and Rosetta Lester who were married in April 1876. John was the youngest of three children and graduated from secondary school in 1898. After five years teaching John Flynn decided to train as a Presbyterian minister, funding his studies by working at Church Home Missionary centres around Victoria. He graduated from a four-year course in divinity at Melbourne University in 1910, and was ordained on 24 January 1911.

A year later he was commissioned by his church to visit the outback and report on its needs. Flynn was well informed about these problems. In 1895, as a fifteen year old, he had experienced firsthand the rugged conditions of the outback when marooned for a month on a sandbar in the Victoria River in the Northern Territory. His report was considered by the Presbyterian General Assembly and as a result of his love and concern for the isolated people of the outback he was appointed field superintendent of the newly established Australian Inland Mission (AIM) in 1912. He held this position for the next 39 years until his death in 1951.

During his time at Beltana, Flynn patrolled far and wide and his ideas and ambitions to see better services for the outback were adjusted and modified. Nursing homes were opened at Beltana, Marree, Alice Springs, Innamincka and several other inland towns, each home managed by two Sisters who also had some experience with church work.

Having established his nursing homes on a firm footing Flynn now started talking about an aero-medical service for the outback people. It was Flynn's idea to bring the doctor to the patient, rather than transporting the patient over often non-existing roads for days to the nearest hospital. This proved to be an even more monumental task than anything else Flynn had tried and achieved before.

All the while Flynn kept working on his plans to provide better and faster services for the people of inland Australia. The tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Jimmy Darcy of Ruby Plains Station, near the remote town of Hall's Creek in Western Australia in August 1917, focused national attention on the desperate need of medical services for the outback. Three months after Darcy's death medical student Clifford Peel from Victoria, wrote to Flynn suggesting the use of airborne docters. From then on Flynn relentlessly worked on this idea until it finally became reality. By now he was well aware of the opportunities which could be provided by planes to transport doctors and provide medical aid to even the most isolated stations.

With the help of Hudson Fysh and his Qantas bush airline, AIM fundraising and a gift of $4,000 from his friend Hugh Victor McKay in 1926, the idea was transformed into reality and the first flight of the Flying Doctor was made from Cloncurry in Queensland on 17 May 1928. The Flying Doctor Service, later Royal Flying Doctor Service had been established! In its first year the service treated 255 patients.

Lack of radio contact with, and between, remote and isolated stations was another of Flynn's concerns. With the development of the pedal wireless in 1929 by Adelaide electrician Alf Traeger, communications between people of the outback became possible and reduced the feeling of isolation. His invention made medical service in Australia's outback a practical reality. It was later also used in Canada and a number of other countries.

Two of the best known features resulting from Traeger's invention were the 'Galah' sessions and the School of the Air, established in 1944 by Adelaide Miethke, an Executive member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The Beltana nursing home operated until it was replaced by a proper hospital at Leigh Creek in 1952.

John Flynn was awarded an OBE in 1933, and served as Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church from 1939 until 1942. Whenever Flynn was on a fundraising tour he would have a copy of Myrtle Rose White's book, No Roads Go By with him. When reading extracts from the book it would greatly help with the donations. Flynn was also very much concerned with the provision of shelter for the older population of Central Australia. In 1949 he designed the first cottage to be built at the Old Timers' Settlement in Alice Springs.

Flynn died on 5 May 1951 and his ashes were placed in a commemorative grave, a few kilometres west of Alice Springs. A church dedicated to Flynn's memory was completed in Alice Springs in 1956. The RFDS now operates from a network of twenty bases throughout Australia.


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