The Sugar Bird Lady

By Hannah James 4 December 2018
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Meet one of the many outback legends produced by the work of the RFDS during the past nine decades.

ROBIN MILLER fit a lot into her short life. A flight nurse and pioneering aviator, she combined her passion for caring for the children of the bush with her love of flight.

A daughter of revered writer Mary Durack and Captain Horrie Miller, the founder of modern aviation in WA, Robin was born in 1940 and grew up on her family’s 7-million-acre Kimberley pastoral property, developing a profound connection to the land and its Indigenous people. From the 1930s, the country had been suffering an outbreak of deadly polio. Despite the 1955 creation of a vaccine, by the mid-1960s many remote communities remained at risk from the infectious and incurable disease.

So Robin went to the WA government with a proposal. “She made them an offer they couldn’t refuse,” Robin’s sister, Patsy Millett, said. “She suggested to the health department that she go out into the remote areas [by plane] and give them the immunisation.” Flying to these communities and administering the vaccine on a sugarcube to disguise its bitter taste, Robin became known as the Sugar Bird Lady. Her campaign was hugely successful, handing out 37,000 doses of the vaccine.

She soon joined forces with the RFDS and worked under its auspices across the Kimberley and the Pilbara, all the while competing in air races. Tragically, in 1975 her life was cut short by cancer at the age of just 35. She left a rich legacy, however, not only through the lives she saved, but also through more modern attitudes to female pilots and women in the bush.