1880 - 1951







John Flynn
John Flynn



John Flynn's image looks out at us today from the surface of the Australian twenty dollar note. It has been said that more memorials have been erected in Australia to this one man than to any other in the nation's history.

John Flynn was born at Moliagul in Victoria in 1880 to Thomas Eugene Flynn and his wife Rosetta Forsyth (Lester). His mother died when he was only two and a half years old. He went to school at Parkville and wanted to study theology at Melbourne University.

Without the funds to attend university he became a 'pupil teacher' in 1899 but could never save enough to cover the costs of studying full time at university. He became a 'home missionary' and spent a great deal of his time ministering to workers in remote locations away from the easy comforts of the city.

It was during this time he became aware of the almost total lack of health care away from major settlements and towns. He saw the need for people to have basic first aid knowledge and he organised lectures and talks on the subject.


He moved from the Otways to East Gippsland and during his time ministering in the bush he developed a keen interest in photography. His work was so good that it was purchased and published by periodical journals and newspapers.

He photographed the Buchan Caves when they were first discovered and the caves quickly became a well known tourist attraction.

In 1907 he began training for the Presbyterian Ministry and in 1909 went on a touring mission. During this trip he first developed the idea of producing a booklet containing relevant and useful information for those who lived and worked in the outback. Simple things like first aid, a funeral service, a calendar, financial advice were collected and published and the 'Bushman's Companion' was born.

The first print run totalled 6,000 and this was quickly followed by a second run of 4,000. The books were simply given away to anyone who needed one and the money was raised to produce the books by the church.

Flynn wanted to establish a number of missions in scattered locations across the country. He favoured the name 'Frontier Services' but the church board selected the name Australian Inland Mission instead.

Flynn was aware of the emerging technology of aeroplanes but they were simply not reliable enough or even popular enough to be a feasible solution to the 'tyranny of distance' that plagued the Australian outback.

World War One saw the rapid development of the aeroplane and in 1917 Lt. Clifford Peel of the Australian Flying Corps wrote to Flynn expressing the belief that aircraft would soon be able to bridge the vast distances of the Australian mainland.

The cost of operating an aircraft was initially a major concern but considering the infrastructure of roads that would be required to operate a land based emergency assistance service, aeroplanes turned out to be quite a cost effective alternative.

Flynn then developed a map showing how just 16 bases could cover the whole country and how the operation would give a 'mantle of safety' in the outback.

Flynn used newspapers to publicise the idea and to help overcome the public's belief that flying was dangerous. Prime Minister Billy Hughes was a supporter of the concept of powered flight and he lent his support to Flynn's ideas.

Meanwhile two returned airmen, Hudson Fysh and Ginty McGuiness had set up a small air service in Queensland and named the enterprise the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service (QANTAS). Flynn contacted Fysh to suggest that they work together and the two men first met in 1921. Fysh immediately saw the benefits of Flynn's ideas and decided to help.

At this time there was no aeroplane capable of carrying stretcher cases and more than just aircraft would be required. A reliable means of communication was the second link in the chain and without it the whole idea would never get off the ground.

Radios had been developed by this time but they were bulky and unreliable. They could only transmit over short distances and Morse code was the main method of transmission.

By 1924 the DeHavilland company had developed the DH50a. This was an aircraft that could be useful to both Flynn and QANTAS and permission was gained to produce the plane under license in Australia at Longreach.

No suitable radio had yet been developed so Flynn spent his own money to buy a radio transmitter and begin to do some testing. A power source for the radio was needed and Flynn was referred to a man named Alf Traegar who had been working on producing a power generator. Flynn purchased a prototype from Traegar and initial tests seemed promising.

Flynn got a radio license (8AC) and with George Towns and his assistant, took his equipment out to Beltana to see how well the system would function. Unfortunately the tests were not as successful as had been hoped.

Other tests followed and finally their signal was received and a reply got back to them. Not only had the Morse signal managed to get through but their voice signal had also been received. The voice transmission was essential as radio operators in remote places could not be trained as Morse signallers. The voice transmission had travelled at least 300 miles.

Traegar's initial power generator still relied on having a vehicle available and this would not always work for everyone living in the bush. Another power source was still required before the service could even think about starting operations.

As luck would have it, Traegar had been working with some compact transmitters and receivers and now using some rather primitive batteries, Flynn next set off to Alice Springs. This time the system worked well and 8AB Alice Springs was on the air. A trip to Hermansburg with a second radio did not produce the expected result but on returning to Alice Springs Traegar found that an incorrect coil had been used and the Alice Springs set was tuned to the wrong frequency. As soon as this was corrected 8AD Hermansburgh was also broadcasting. 8AE Arltunga followed but the primitive and heavy batteries being used for these initial tests would not be feasible in the long term. The search for a reliable power source was still on.

5,000 pounds cash was needed to get the service going and by 1927 all but 500 had been donated. Flynn, as was usual by now, put his own money up to ensure the project could continue and soon a mining accident at Mount Isa in Queensland was to be the catalyst for the first test of medical evacuation by air.

The patient was flown to Cloncurry and survived. The public was now aware of the success and money started to flow in. Cloncurry was selected as the first Flying Doctor base and 23 doctors applied to become the first Flying Doctor in Australia. The successful applicant was Kenyton St. Vincent Welch and he had barely arrived at his new post before he was whisked away from the reception to attend his first patient.

The first aerial visit was to Julia Creek and by the end of the first month of operation Dr. Welch had flown 3,000 miles.

Ground based doctors took some time to hail the arrival of this new service that they initially saw as competition, but in time even they realised the importance of having the service available.

Alf Traegar was still working on improving the radio technology and he was successful in improving both the transmitter and the power source.

The Great Depression affected the fledgling service as it did everything else but most people had by now realised the benefits that a flying doctor and medical evacuation service offered and the service continued to expand across the country.

Flynn married his long time secretary, Jean Baird in 1932 and the following year was awarded an OBE for his services to the nation. World War Two tested the service yet again but once more it survived.

By the time he was 70 years old, Flynn was seen by the members of the board as too old to continue in his role as Superintendent. In 1951 he was effectively removed from his hands on position. Flynn took leave but in May he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. After falling into a coma, 'Flynn of the inland' died on May 5th.

John Flynn, probably more than any one man in the short history of this nation, was responsible for making the outback not only a safer place for men to work, but a place where women could live and children could thrive safe in the knowledge that help was a simple radio call away.

The service was eventually copied and transplanted to Africa where, as it has done here, it saved countless lives.

John Flynns grave
John Flynn's grave




1880 - Born on November 25th.

1899 - Became a pupil teacher.

1903 - Started training as lay pastor.

1907 - Began training for the Presbyterian Ministry.

1909 - Started a touring mission trip.

1910 - Published the Bushman's Companion with a first print run of 6,000.

1911 - Began work at the Smith of Dunesk Mission in the northern Flinders Ranges, South Australia.

1927 - 5000 pounds had been raised to enable an 'air ambulance' service to start operating.

1832 - Flynn marries Jean Baird.

1933 - Awarded an OBE.

1951 - Flynn is removed as superintendent of the project. Not long after this he collapsed and lapsed into a coma.

1951 - Died on May 5th.


Links to more information:


Flynn, John (1880-1951)

John Flynn (minister)

John Flynn Biography




Become a supporter of this website for just $5 a month



Go to the Home Page Go to the Help Page Go to the Help Page

Western Australia Now and Then website - Copyright (c) 2019 - Marc Glasby. All rights reserved.