A hundred years ago, many people living in the vast inland areas of Australia led isolated lives. A farmer who became sick or a miner who got injured had little chance of seeing a doctor. Most likely, they could not even reach a location with telephone or telegraph service to call and ask for medical advice.
John Flynn was a Presbyterian minister who wanted to help the people living in Australia’s remote areas. In 1912, he became head of the church’s newly formed Australian Inland Mission (AIM). The organization’s goal was to minister to the spiritual, medical, educational, and social needs of the people in the outback. Under Flynn’s guidance, AIM soon organized ministers called patrol padres, some of whom even traveled by camel between communities in the dry interior regions. AIM also began to establish small nursing hostels, where people could come to receive medical care from a nursing sister. However, medical care still remained out of reach for many.
On May 15, 1928, Flynn realized a longtime dream with the start of AIM’s Aerial Medical Service, which eventually became the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The service began with a rented timber-and-cloth biplane named Victory. Patients and medical personnel rode in a cabin that could carry as many as four people. The pilot sat in the open behind the cabin. With only a compass and incomplete maps as navigational tools, the pilot often had to use fence lines and other landmarks to find the way. The landing strip might be a narrow track or an open field. The first flight left Cloncurry, Queensland, on May 17 to aid an injured person at Julia Creek. In its first year, the Aerial Medical Service flew more than 17,400 miles (28,000 kilometers) in some 50 flights and helped more than 200 patients.
In 1929, the Australian engineer Alfred Traeger invented a radio transmitter and receiver run by a generator that got its power from foot pedals similar to those on a bicycle. Now people beyond the reach of any telephone or telegraph could call for emergency medical aid. In the 1950’s, the radio network of the Flying Doctor Service was made available for Australia’s new School of the Air program, which made it possible for schoolchildren in remote areas to communicate with teachers by radio.
Today, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) is a private, nonprofit service that continues to provide medical care free of charge to people in Australia’s outback regions. Its aircraft provide 24-hour emergency care, as well as transportation for patients to or between hospitals. Operating from bases around the county, the planes fly more than 16 million miles (26 million kilometers) each year. Each plane is outfitted like a hospital emergency room. (The pilots now get to sit inside.) The number of patients helped, including those treated at RFDS clinics and through electronic and telephone consultations, is around 280,000 each year.
Australians have honored John Flynn by putting his picture on the country’s 20-dollar note (bill). Other images associated with the Royal Flying Doctor Service also appear on the note. They include Victory, a compass, Traeger’s pedal radio, a body chart invented to help patients describe their injuries or pain, and even a camel representing the early days of the Australian Inland Mission.