John Flynn

The founder and superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission, John Flynn (1880-1951) established remote "bush" hospitals and communication through the unique pedal radio and his Flying Doctor Service.

Known for over 50 years as "Flynn of the Inland," John Flynn was born on November 25, 1880, in the small country township of Moliagul in central Victoria, Australia. He commenced training as a school teacher, then in 1903 for the ministry of the Presbyterian Church. During this time he developed skills in photography and first aid. In 1910 he published a small book, The Bushman's Companion, containing practical advice for people living far from medical help.

In 1910 he volunteered for appointment to a remote pastorate extending from the Flinders Ranges of South Australia to the rail terminus at Oodnadatta 450 miles northwest. Here, 500 miles from a resident doctor, he established his first "bush" hospital. In 1912, with photographs to support his "Northern Australia Report," his presentation of the frightening hazards facing isolated pioneers resulted in the Presbyterian General Assembly appointing him as superintendent of a special ministry to the sparsely populated areas of Australia. Despite limited finances, but with great vision and growing support, he gradually added other "bush" hospitals, each staffed by two dedicated and highly trained nursing Sisters equipped to perform emergency operations. Flynn planned to have a patrol padre (itinerant pastor) associated with each hospital.

The first padre, based at Oodnadatta, used a string of five camels. Two riding camels were for himself and his "camel boy," and three pack animals were for food, water, cooking utensils, and bed-rolls. His longest patrol extended 750 miles northward along the overland telegraph line. One padre used a camel buggy and another used horses prior to the use of motor trucks. Flynn's commitment to staff support, work evaluation, and consultations with "bush" people kept him in the field for a great part of each year. In 1925 he purchased a specially designed Dodge buck-board in which he made some incredible journeys—the first lasted four months over inland desert tracks that were used in the 1980s only by four wheel drive vehicles.

Flynn recognized that his hospitals and padres could do little to alleviate the agony suffered by patients conveyed by camel, horse, or buggy over hundreds of trackless miles to his out-post hospitals. As early as 1919 he wrote in his Inlander magazine of the need for the wider mantle of safety that only radio and aircraft could supply. With the initial help of air force pilot Clifford Peel and later (Sir) Hudson Fysh, a founder of QANTAS, Flynn reached one of his goals when on May 17, 1928, a de Haviland 50, leased from QANTAS and named Victory, answered its first medical call.

In 1925, by chance, he met a young Adelaide radio enthusiast, Alfred Traeger, who expressed great interest in Flynn's vision. This meeting was destined to change the history of communication in remote areas of Australia. The following year Flynn invited Traeger to join his staff. Their first successful two-way transmission was from Alice Springs in November 1925. However, the heavy copper oxide batteries used were unsuitable for remote homesteads. Traeger persisted until he perfected a transceiver for which the current was provided by the operator using cycle pedals to drive a small generator. In June 1929 this unique pedal radio using a hand-operated Morse code transmitter went into service in remote homesteads and Flynn hospitals through the new Flying Doctor base at Cloncurry. The pedal radio provided the link between patient, hospital, and Flynn's Aerial Medical Service to complete his mantle of safety.

The final phase of Flynn's great service to the people of remote areas began with his merging of his Aerial Medical Service into an Australia-wide community service—now known as the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (R.F.D.S.). Flynn had recognized that his Flying Doctor Service, supported by limited resources, could never achieve his vision of a service for two-thirds of Australia. With the support of the 1933 Australian State Premiers' Conference and his own church, he gave his Flying Doctor Service and all its transmitting equipment to the new organization and the pedal radios to the people of the outback. Flynn's work was publicly recognized in the award of the O.B.E.(Order of the British Empire) in 1933.

Flynn demonstrated an instinctive insight as a "community developer" and a recognition of the benefit the pedal radio would bring to the women and children of the outback in security, social communication, and education; for example, the Country Womens Association of the Air held meetings through a radio link-up and the Education School of the Air was carried by a radio network. He enjoyed a remarkable range of friendships, from the "battlers in the bush" to cabinet ministers. His fertile imagination developed projects that enriched people and places. He lived for a specific goal and refused to be sidetracked from a task that received his total commitment.

On May 7, 1932, at age 51, Flynn married Jean Baird. He died on May 5, 1951, and by his wish his ashes were interred at the foot of Mt. Gillen, Alice Springs.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports that

In 1939 Flynn was elected to the three-year term as Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. In 1940 and 1941 the degrees of D.D. were conferred on him by the University of Toronto and the Presbyterian College at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. When John Flynn said "A man is his friends" he expressed something akin to Martin Buber's philosophy that "All real living is in meeting." His meeting with other people often revealed a compulsive humanism which gave meaning to his own life as an ordained minister of his Church and to the faith by which he lived and served.


Further Reading on John Flynn

The Australian Dictionary of Biography article by Graeme Bucknall in Volume 8 provides a more detailed account of Flynn's life and work. W. W. McPheat, John Flynn, Apostle to the Inland (London, 1963) contains a definitive account of Flynn's life and work. M. F. Page, The Flying Doctor Story, 1928-1978 (1977) was published for the Jubilee of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. The early chapters contain an accurate account of Flynn's role in establishing the service in 1928 at Cloncurry. Flynn's Inlander magazine published between 1913 and 1926, contains most of his published writings.

Additional Biography Sources

Griffiths, Max., The silent heart: Flynn of the inland, Kenthurst, Australia: Kangaroo Press, 1993.

McKenzie, Maisie., Flynn's last camp, Brisbane, Qld.: Boolarong Publications, 1985.