History Detective

$20 Note John Flynn and the Royal Flying Doctors Case 21

Episode Summary

John Flynn is the man who features on the $20 note who is renowned for beginning the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Episode Notes

In this episode I look at  Reverend John Flynn and the sad story of Jim Darcy whose tragic death inspired Flynn to begin the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

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All theme music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and in this series, All Cashed Up , I explore the historical people who have made it onto the Australian money. 

As we move toward a cashless society and physical money is being slowly phased out of everyday use, I wanted to pause and take a look at the faces who have had the honour of making it onto our money. I will be looking at the bespectacled chap whose face graces one side of $20 the note, the man known as Flynn of the Inland, the Reverend John Flynn.

The $20 note- is colloquially known as the lobster for its bright orange colour- Thank you Mr Salakas for bringing my attention to this Aussie slang.  Interestingly both John Flynn and Mary Reibey, who is on the flip side of the 20, are the only people featured on our money who are wearing glasses. I guess they didn’t have 20-20 vision. (Cha-ching) But enough of the terrible mum puns. Today we are not only going to learn how John Flynn came to be immortalised on our money, I am going to introduce to someone whose tragic death motivated John Flynn to embark on the remarkable work that he did in establishing the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service in Australia.

Reverend John Flynn was born in 1880 and after graduating high school, he could not afford to go to university, so he became a student teacher with the Victorian Education Department. This is where he developed an interest in First Aid. Then in 1903, he began training as a Presbyterian minister and eventually went to theological college to become a minister. During this period, he also spent some time in outback missions. In 1913 he was asked to create a survey of the Northern Territory and report back on the needs of both the Aboriginal people of the area and the white people. This work led to him being appointed as the superintendent of the Australia Inland Mission. The mission was to care for both the physical and spiritual health of the people of rural Australia. And to give you an idea of just how big a task this was, at the time when he started this work, there were only two doctors that serviced an area of 1.8million square meters of outback Western Australia and the Northern Territory. That is almost the same size of the entire country of Mexico.

In 1917 Flynn read the news of Jim Darcy’s death. Now let me take a side trip down a rabbit hole to introduce you to the sad story of Jim Darcy. He was an Aboriginal stockman; whose tale of insufficient medical care sparked an idea in John Flynn that would eventually become the world’s first flying medical service.

Jim (or Jimmy) Darcy was a jackeroo at the Ruby Downs Cattle Station in the Kimberley in Western Australia. If you look at a map of the Kimberley, it is way up in the north west corner of Australia, it could not be any further from almost all of the major Australian cities.

One day in 1917, there was a cattle stampede and Jim Darcy jumped on a horse to try and head them off. Unfortunately, the horse that Darcy jumped on did not have a saddle and when the horse lost its footing in a rocky gully. Darcy was thrown over the top of the horse and was consequently trampled by some of the stampeding cattle. He was found in a very poor state by some other jackeroos, but the nearest person who could help, with even some basic First Aid training was the post-master Fred Tuckett. However, Fred was still 50 miles or 80km away. That journey takes an entire day on horseback.

By the time that Darcy made it to the post-master, Tuckett realised that Darcy had internal bleeding, and this was way beyond his capability of treating with his basic First Aid training. So Tuckett sent Morse Code messages to the two closest towns. Remember that this was before telephones and radio communication infrastructure had been installed in rural Australia, so the only way to communicate was through Morse Code. Anyway, Tuckett received messages back that the two closest doctors were out bush and would not return for days, so instead he sent a message to Perth which was 2400miles away, that is more than 3800km. This would take two weeks to travel in those days.

Now remember that this was the year 1917 and communication systems did not work the same way that they do now. There were radio stations, but they only had a range of about 300 miles. It was almost like a relay of sending a telegraph message to one station, who then passed it on to the next, and the next, and the next, until it finally the message arrived.

The doctor in Perth got the message and replied using the same slow message relay method. Eventually they worked out that poor Darcy had a ruptured bladder and it was decided that the post-master, who had no sterile equipment nor any anaesthetic, would operate on him with a pen knife with the jackeroos holding him down.

Over the next few hours with messages bouncing back and forth to Perth, Tuckett performed the operation and found he did have a ruptured bladder and he stitched it up. Remember this guy only had basic First Aid training. Could you imagine? I can barely keep my eyes open during a medical procedural show on television, let alone sewing up a man’s bladder while he was awake. 

Over the next few days Tuckett performed two more operations, but Jimmy’s condition deteriorated. The doctor from Perth decided to travel up to the Kimberly to help, but the journey took 14 days and sadly, Jim Darcy died one day before he arrived.

When John Flynn heard this story, he was so moved that he knew he had to do something to make sure that people in outback Australia were able to get access to medical care.

He used his magazine, “The Inlander” to raise awareness of the issues facing people in rural Australia and worked to raise funds to buy planes. He also worked with a radio engineer named Alfred Traeger to make a wireless radio that worked in remote areas.

Just over 10 years after the death of Jim Darcy, in May 1928, the Australian Aerial Medical Service became the first flying medical service in the world.  In 1942, it was renamed the Flying Doctor’s Service, and in 1955, the word Royal was added to the front and it officially became known as the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service. 

These days the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service is able to help someone every two minutes and another interesting branch of the Royal Flying Doctors is the School of the Air. Almost 70 years before the rest of the world went into Covid-19 lockdown, with students and teachers adjusting to remote learning, the School of the Air were providing remote education to rural Australian children via radio. 

This Kelly Chase, on the Case.

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Next time on History Detective, we will flip and reverse the $20 note and discover the story of the horse thief, convict and female entrepreneur Mrs Mary Reibey.

See you next time.