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!”