The Royal Flying Doctor Service

Pedal wireless

This is the 200th post to this blog, and it seems appropriate that such a milestone should be marked by talking about a development which has made life in the Outback a practical proposition for the majority of the people who live and work there. Its importance to Outback life cannot be overestimated.

On the 17th May, 1928, a single-engine, fabric-covered biplane took off from Cloncurry in western Queensland to answer a call for medical help – sent by hand-cranked wireless – from the remote town of Julia Creek. What subsequently became the Royal Flying Doctor Service has now been providing a “mantle of safety” for people living and travelling in remote areas of Australia for more than 87 years.

The RFDS currently operates over 60 aircraft, which fly a total of more than 27 million kilometers a year. RFDS medical staff see an average of 800 patients a day, and they perform an average of more than 100 medical evacuations by air every day of the year.

The Rev John Flynn, founder of the RFDS, started his Outback ministry at Beltana (near Leigh Creek in South Australia) in 1911, and soon came to understand the rigours and privations of Outback life. He rapidly became committed to the vision of providing better communications and medical help for those in remote areas, and in 1912 persuaded the Presbyterian Church to establish the Australian Inland Mission (AIM). Flynn was its first superintendent.

Flynn saw great potential in the emerging field of wireless communication. He enlisted the help of Alf Tregear, who developed the hand-cranked wireless, and then in 1927 the famous pedal wireless (as in the picture). Morse code and later voice messages started to break down the extreme isolation of Outback dwellers, as these remarkable machines were installed in remote locations, and urgent calls for help got through in minutes rather than hours or days.

The simultaneous developments in aircraft technology meant that sick or injured people and skilled medical personnel could be brought together rapidly.

Flynn’s dream had become reality, and 87 years on, the RFDS still provides a critical medical service to people in remote situations across the continent.

You have to search hard to find someone in the Outback who is not an enthusiastic supporter of the Flying Doctor. With prompting, they can often tell the story of a sick child, a car or tractor accident, heart attack, or snake bite, where the Flying Doctor saved the day. Some will give a graphic account of commandeering all available vehicles to shine their headlights on the nearest landing strip to help the Flying Doctor touch down at night.

A lesser-known service provided by the RFDS is the “medical chest”. Over 3500 RFDS medical chests containing an extensive range of numbered drugs and medical supplies are located at remote locations across Australia. Following a remote medical consultation, a patient may for example be advised to take two Number 15 pills. One station manager was told to give his wife a Number 9 tablet from the medical chest. Later he told the doctor, “We’d run out of Number 9s, but I gave her one Number 6 and one Number 3 and she came good right away!”

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About dazzlerplus

Writing about the things that interest me helps me to discover what I think. One of my loves is the Australian Outback, and I travel out there often, and when possible take friends with me.
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15 Responses to The Royal Flying Doctor Service

  1. I loved the anecdote about the pills. The advantages of sound arithmetic!
    Thank you for this post. My great-uncle, the Reverend John Shaw, knew John Flynn,
    and worked for the A.I.M. in Port Hedland during the First World War. He took his young family with him, and his sister, later my grandmother, went to help. I think it was probably the most
    exciting time of her life. Alas, She died when I was quite young, so I didn’t ask the questions I should have done.

    Gillian

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Flynn was without doubt a real visionary, and inspired many others along the way. Of course, to be inspired, you have to be inspirable, and it sounds like your great-uncle had that desirable quality.
      Re your grandmother, I’ve been thinking lately of how parents — at least the ones who don’t mind doing a bit of writing — can leave a real legacy to their children and grandchildren by writing down some of the things they think their descendants might like to know about, but didn’t get around to asking before it was too late.
      Keep writing, Gillian!

  2. Reblogged this on Waltzing Australia and commented:
    If you’ve read my book, Waltzing Australia, you’ll know that I visited a Royal Flying Doctor Service office on my first trip to Australia, and also toured the Adelaide House Museum in Alice Springs, which relates a bit of the early history of John Flynn and the RFDS. This post adds some additional information, plus it has a photo of the pedal-operated generator for radio communication that I mention in the book. (It also includes a story that would probably scare most doctors, of how numbering the bottles in the emergency chest can be misinterpreted.)

  3. Lavinia Ross says:

    Happy 200th post! Thanks for the story of the RFDS – my mother would have loved to have been a part of it, had she been Australian. She joined the Frontier Nursing Service over here in southeast Kentucky in the middle of coal mining country, way back when. Not anywhere near so much territory to cover as the RFDS, but conditions were pretty rough.

    I like that pedal wireless and the story of 6 + 3 = Number 9. Glad that all worked out well for the fellow’s wife. 🙂

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Thanks, Lavinia.
      Re the 6 + 3 story, one hesitates to think whether the wife would have done as well with a 7+2!

      • Ros Bradley says:

        …. Or an 8+1!
        Great story Rob, thanks! I was really surprised to read that they treat 800 patients daily. That’s a lot of people. Go RFDS! And congrats on your 200th post

  4. sbtanner@bigpond.com says:

    Hi Bobby Dazzler, I have been receiving your Blogs for some time now, and there has been occasion when I would have dearly liked to reprint some of your articles. I am the Editor of the Toyota Land Cruiser Club of Victoria magazine (Overland Cruisering), and if you would be agreeable, I would like to reprint your Royal Flying Doctor Service article – which would definitely have acknowledgments to you. I enjoy your “articles” very much. They are a pleasure to read, and I always look forward to them. Thank you for including the readers “out there” who I’m sure there are many enjoying your Blogs as much as I do. I look forward to your reply, Best regards, Sandra Tanner EDITOR – Overland Cruisering magazine Toyota Land Cruiser Club of Victoria Date: Fri, 12 Feb 2016 09:05:42 +0000 To: sbtanner@bigpond.com

  5. betty says:

    Hi I really enjoy reading your blog. Congratulations on the 200th milestone!! I wonder what the outcome would have been if 6 and 3 werent available. I think I may have worked with you way way back in 1964/65?? I was one of Hester McKinleys operators??

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Wow, Betty, talk about a blast from the past!! That’s 50 years ago! Of course I remember Hester, and I can prove my bona fides by telling you I used to work for Errol Plummer, and then Tom Goodyer. Please drop me a line at brennan@bba.com.au — I’d love to swap a few memories with you.

  6. Mandy says:

    Congratulations on the 200. I have worked in camps with the RFDS medical chest, with its numbers to identify everything, but thankfully have never had to use it.

    • dazzlerplus says:

      Thanks, Mandy. Yes, the medical chest has saved a lot of lives over the years, particularly in situations where “popping down” to the pharmacy and back might take a full day or more.

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