On this day: The Flying Doctor Service is born

By Courtenay Rule 7 November 2013
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Australia’s iconic aerial medical service took its first flight on 17 May 1928.

ON 17 MAY 1928, a life-saving mission – and what would become an iconic Australian institution – took to the skies in Cloncurry, Queensland. It was on this day that the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) was born.

Originally called the Aerial Medical Service, the RFDS was the creation of Reverend John Flynn (1880-1951), a minister who had spent many years in the Australian outback, setting up hostels and hospitals to care for settlers in remote areas. Flynn knew firsthand the tragedies that could result when those living far from established communities were unable to access reliable medical care. He longed to create a “mantle of safety”, as he termed it, for the people of the outback.

Inspiration came in 1917 when Flynn received a letter from Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a young Australian medical student serving in World War I, describing how he’d seen missionary doctors use aircraft to reach isolated patients. Sadly, Peel died in the war, not knowing his letter would become the blueprint for Australia’s own Flying Doctor Service.

john flynn $20

Reverend John Flynn features on Australia’s $20 note. (Image: Reserve Bank of Australia)

After eleven years of campaigning (and with the support of another new Australian institution – Qantas) Flynn’s dream became a reality on 17 May 1928. During its first year, the service flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients. In subsequent years, advances in both aviation and radio technology allowed the RFDS to spread its mantle further over outback Australia, reaching thousands more patients and saving countless lives.

Today, the Flying Doctors make the equivalent of 25 round trips to the Moon each year as they care for some 240,000 patients across Australia, in what one spokesman called “the world’s largest medical waiting room”.

Flynn’s achievements are commemorated in a museum in Cloncurry, and his portrait features on Australia’s $20 note. In Alice Springs, Flynn’s grave and a memorial church honour a man whose compassionate vision, according to a plaque enscription, “encompassed the continent”.