Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The advent of the first flying doctor service in Australia in 1928 opened the doors for further settlement and development of the nation’s vast interior. Previously, Outback settlers rarely had access to medical treatment, and minor injuries could quickly turn deadly. Eventually armed with radios as well as airplanes, members of the flying doctor service changed the face of Australian medicine, providing what became known as a “mantle of safety” for the Outback’s pioneers.

Summary of Event

In May of 1928, the tiny Outback settlement of Cloncurry in Queensland, Australia, witnessed the birth of the country’s first flying doctor service. In March of that year, the fledgling Australian airline Qantas Qantas airlines had signed a one-year contract with the Presbyterian Church’s Australian Inland Mission to carry a doctor to patients in remote Outback locations. On May 15, the Aerial Medical Service was officially established at Cloncurry, and on May 17, the Qantas airplane Victory made the first historic flight, taking Dr. Kenyon St. Vincent Welch from Cloncurry to Julia Creek. This marked the beginning of a yearlong experiment in which the “flying doctor” would travel more than 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) and treat more than 250 patients. The program’s success led to a larger national cooperative effort in 1932 called the Australian Aerial Medical Service (AAMS), to which the Presbyterian Church ultimately transferred its flying doctor services in 1934. The AAMS was renamed the Flying Doctor Service in 1942, and it received a Royal Charter in 1955 that added the honorific “Royal” in front of its name. [kw]Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service (May 15, 1928) [kw]Flying Doctor Service, Australia Begins the (May 15, 1928) [kw]Doctor Service, Australia Begins the Flying (May 15, 1928) Royal Flying Doctor Service Australian Aerial Medical Service Medicine;Australian Aerial Medical Service Flying doctor service (Australia) [g]Australia;May 15, 1928: Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service[07030] [c]Health and medicine;May 15, 1928: Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service[07030] [c]Transportation;May 15, 1928: Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service[07030] [c]Space and aviation;May 15, 1928: Australia Begins the Flying Doctor Service[07030] Flynn, John Peel, Clifford Traeger, Alfred Darcy, Jimmy

The establishment of the flying doctor service was the realization of a dream held by the Reverend John Flynn. Flynn was the first superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, Australian Inland Mission an organization that he created in 1912 with the help of the Australian Presbyterian Church. The purpose of the mission was to provide spiritual service, health care, education, and other assistance to the pioneering settlers who were attempting to establish a foothold in the vast Australian interior. During his work with the mission, Flynn had traveled great distances and had become familiar with the harsh and primitive conditions that Outback settlers endured. Before long, wherever Flynn went, he lobbied for the establishment of a medical-assistance network, but he had not yet figured out exactly how such a service would operate.

In 1917, the death of Jimmy Darcy, a young stockman, made national news and drew attention to the lack of medical attention in the Outback. According to the official history of the Royal Doctor Flying Service, Darcy was badly injured in a fall in rural Western Australia and was carried 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) to the nearest town, Halls Creek. The town’s postmaster, Fred Tuckett, eventually reached a doctor by telegraph, but the doctor was so far away that he had to guide Tuckett through an emergency operation procedure using Morse code. Although the operation itself appeared to be successful, Darcy later died due to unrelated complications—a death that the doctor might have been able to prevent if he had been there in person.

Darcy’s death motivated Flynn to press on with his efforts, and it also inspired a young Australian soldier named Clifford Peel, who was serving in Europe. Peel wrote a lengthy letter to Flynn, who reprinted it in the October, 1918, issue of the Australian Inland Mission’s publication the Inlander. Peel, who had been a medical student before going to war, had provided cost estimates and specific suggestions for a flying doctor service. Unfortunately, Peel was killed in action in France in1918, a full decade before his ideas would be put into practice.

It took several years of lobbying, fund-raising, and research before the flying doctor service could be started. Flynn felt strongly that connecting the inhabitants of the coastal areas and the inland was critical to Australia’s future, and he eloquently argued his case. In addition, the continuing tensions in Europe contributed to a nationalistic desire to populate the country’s interior. Recognizing that the success of a flying doctor service was dependent on communication, Flynn persuaded radio engineer Alfred Traeger to join him in Cloncurry to begin working on the communication issues. In the meantime, Flynn drafted the organization’s guidelines and constitution. In doing so, he deliberately avoided limiting the organization’s services to medical treatment.

Finally, in May of 1928, the Aerial Medical Service was ready to launch the inaugural flight that carried Qantas pilot Arthur Affleck and Dr. Kenyon St. Vincent Welch from Cloncurry to Julia Creek. Because Traeger’s radio system was not yet ready, during its first year the service depended on telephone links that existed between towns and settlements and on the ability of individuals to travel to places where they could relay requests for assistance. In addition, pilots had to rely on landmarks for navigation, which was difficult considering that long stretches of Outback territory could not easily be distinguished from other parts of the region. The situation was much improved when Traeger unveiled the system he had developed: a pedal-operated radio set with a Morse typewriter keyboard that could be used by those who did not know Morse code.

In 1932, Traeger further improved the organization’s communications by distributing transistorized voice sets that allowed doctors to diagnose from a distance and created a continuous communication network among Outback stations separated by wide distances. In 1942, coded medical chests for the Outback stations were introduced, and 1952 saw the development of a detailed chart of the human body that patients could use to tell doctors precisely where their injuries or pains were located. All of these innovations greatly improved the effectiveness of long-distance diagnosis and medical treatment. Gradually, the Flying Doctor Service added base stations at various locations throughout Australia so that it could reach a growing population. It continued to improve its equipment and training for personnel, which shortened the response time needed to get to any location in Australia for a medical emergency.


Robert Gordon Menzies, who served as the prime minister of Australia from 1939 to 1941 and from 1949 to 1966, was widely quoted as saying that the Flying Doctor Service may have been the single most important factor in the effective settlement of the Australian Outback. Before the service was established, lack of medical treatment meant that the most minor injury could develop into a lethal condition. As the program grew, the Australia population came to revere the brave pilots and doctors who worked hard to save lives, and the organization’s founder, John Flynn, was eventually honored by having his portrait on the Australian $20 note and on a postage stamp.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service also had far-reaching implications outside the medical realm; for instance, its radio network was utilized for the School of the Air, which provided long-distance school lessons for children in the Outback. In addition, the network provided an important source of social contact for lonely settlers. Royal Flying Doctor Service Australian Aerial Medical Service Medicine;Australian Aerial Medical Service Flying doctor service (Australia)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Batstone, Kay. Outback Heroes: Seventy-Five Years of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. Melbourne, Vic.: Lothian Books, 2003. Commemorative volume that examines the origins and development of the Royal Flying Doctor Service; contains archival photographs and detailed accounts of life-saving rescue missions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hains, Brigid. “Antipodean Alchemist: ’Flying Doctor’ Pioneer John Flynn Thought That a Vital Society Was a Humane One.” Meanjin 63 (March, 2004): 27. In this essay, historian Hains examines some of the philosophies behind Flynn’s vision, including his dislike and distrust of cities, his thoughts on race, and his belief that accessible transportation between Australia’s interior and coastal areas would address not only medical needs but also the nation’s mental and social health in general.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. “Our History.” Extensive history section on the organization’s official Web site includes a time line showing when each geographic base was added to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudolph, Ivan. John Flynn: Of Flying Doctors and Frontier Faith. 2d ed. Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, 2000. Biographical account focusing on Flynn’s pioneering role in founding the organization that would become the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

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Categories: History