Flynn's Outback Angels
Fulfilling the Vision
by Ivan Rudolph
In this, his third and final book of the John Flynn trilogy, Ivan Rudolph highlights the work and life of the women who ventured out to such places as Birdsville, Alice Springs, Halls Creek, Beltana, Port Hedland, Oodnadatta, Dunbar, Coen, Innamincka, Victoria River Downs and the numerous other settlements to keep Flynn’s ‘Mantle of Safety’ operating at all costs. They could be found racing along a hundred isolated Inland tracks on mercy missions while others helped with the nuts and bolts at headquarters playing an important role in the logistics of the work.
During and after World War II their work and contribution to Flynn’s mission changed dramatically as they were recognised far more readily as equals along their male professionals. Whereas before they had mainly served as nurses, they would now also be involved in such occupations as flying doctors, flight sisters and even as pilots. The outback was one winner from this explosion of emancipated talent.
Despite all improvements in transport, communication, medical knowledge and education, loneliness and isolation, the time taken for medical help to arrive could still cause major problems. However the author has in this volume not only dwelt on the high drama and coping with emergencies but also emphasized the loyalty and fellowship which transcend privation. He has documented a potpourri of hilarious stories about some of the women’s experiences as well.
Among them are Jean Auld and Dorothy Robertson’s story of their time at Birdsville. To get there they travelled with Tom Kruse along the Birdsville Track in 1946. They soon found it a place different from any other. In fact it proved to be a very hard and difficult time for them. If it weren’t rats or snakes it was red-back spiders or centipedes. While getting used to these visitors they managed to survive dust storms, a flood, scabies, emergency childbirth, pulling teeth, preaching and an almost fatal truck explosion. When later serving at Kununurra they had to deal with the Kimberly flue, a local term for venereal disease.
Ivan Rudolph has made good use of letters written by these courageous women to their parents in the city. They give a far better picture of what it was all about than any official record or report. A most touching story is that of Lois Hurse’s work with outback children at Halls Creek in the 1950s and the delightful story of how these shy outback children visited the Queen Mother in Canberra in 1957.
Beth Symonds’ intimate letters home from her AIM posts in Oodnadatta in the 1950s and Coen in the 1960s tell of her midwifery efforts with Aboriginal girls, her treatment of Aboriginal babies and her desperate attempts to save the sick and the wounded.
Interwoven with these serious stories are the funny ones. Some of them may not have been funny at the time but have proved very much so later, particularly at a party. Sister Sue Nilon, while serving at Birdsville, would have to be the only person in the world who managed to wave down a plane and get the pilot to repair her car before he could take off again!
Ivan has also given an interesting account on the background of Adelaide Miethke, founder of the School of the Air. It turns out to be an astonishing biography of a country girl born in 1881 of German Lutheran parents who lost her mother when she was only 11 years old. After her schooling she became a pupil teacher in 1899. By 1924 she was a School Inspector and in 1936 President of the National Council of Women. A year later she was awarded an OBE for her contributions to child welfare and education.
In 1939 it was Adelaide’s support and money from her Patriotic Fund which made it possible for Flynn to finish his Alice Springs Flying Doctor Base. After more than ten years of hard work it was from this base that the School of the Air made its first broadcast. Its official opening was on 8 June 1951, a month after the death of John Flynn.
A more light-hearted but also heart-warming story is told in a chapter about the bush children. Another chapter continues the story of the Inglis sisters, in particular Nance, the AIM’s nurse, welfare worker and matron of Adelaide’s Warrawee Children’s Home. She and every one of Flynn’s workers were Jacks of all trades and masters of most.
Sister Beryl Moore wrote from Coen Hospital in North Queensland on 3 February 1960; Work is varied besides medical work: there is cooking, housework, and organizing the children, changes of linen, supervising homework, keeping their clothes tidy, tucking them in at night and reading stories before lights out. In addition we have accounts to keep, ordering to do, and so it goes on. All very good for the soul and I am enjoying it though expect to be grey haired at the end of the month when the books and banking have to be done.
By the 1960s the RFDS was provided with government nurses who would hold clinics for mothers and babies as well as assisting at emergencies. They provided magnificent service but it soon became apparent that specially trained Sisters employed by the RDFS would be a better arrangement. These government nurses were not the first though. The first recorded flight by a nurse specially to help a Flying Doctor was by Meg McKay assisting Dr John Laver when he flew to Boulia in 1939. Myra Blanch was the first officially employed Flying Sister for a decade from 1945.
Sister Marie Osborne wrote in 1960; I had visions of daredevil pilots, flying by the ‘seat of their pants’ through dust storms and cyclones, landing on flooded airstrips and crash landing without batting an eyelid. Reality proved slightly different. They preferred flying by radar and around cyclones. They were often pale under their suntan from operating all night. As a Flying Sister she found herself assisting the doctor as nurse, secretary, disher-upper of meals, disposer of paper bags, and ‘chief dogsbody’.
Later women pilots would be employed by the RFDS, the first being Beth Garrett who had previously worked for Southern Airlines. While there she became the first woman to hold an Airline Transport Licence and become an instructor at the Royal Victorian Aero Club. She did land her plane on muddy or flooded airstrips in an effort to bring patients to hospital or provide emergency treatment at a station, be it day or night.
Last, but certainly not least, there were the women Flying Doctors. Since the 1960s there have been many of them, all rendering sterling service to the outback. Flynn would have been proud of them, as he was of all who worked for the original Australian Inland Mission, Frontier Services and the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Today the RFDS is the world’s most effective provider of medical services to isolated communities and women play key roles in all of the 19 bases throughout Australia. In fact 90% of the current staff of Frontier Services are women.
Ivan Rudolph has again done an admirable job in documenting not only Flynn’s work but also that of the many men and women who assisted him in Fulfilling his Mission and making the Mantle of Safety a reality. The book is well worth reading but to get the whole picture all three books of his John Flynn Trilogy should be on every one’s list of Must Read books.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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