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Fenton, Clyde Cornwall (1901–1982)

by Brian Reid

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Clyde Cornwall Fenton (1901-1982), flying doctor, was born on 16 May 1901 at Warrnambool, Victoria, second of four surviving children of George Augustus Frederick Boyd Fenton, a Victorian-born bank manager, and his wife Kathleen (Catherine/Katherine) Mary, née Clarke, from England. Educated at Natimuk State School and Xavier College, Melbourne (dux 1917), Clyde acquired an early reputation as a wit and an expert with machinery and mathematics. He proceeded to Newman College, University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1922; MB, BS, 1925).

After working as a resident medical officer at St Vincent’s Hospital, Fitzroy, and practising privately at Geelong, Fenton attempted to drive across Australia in record time with his younger brother Frederick. A motor accident in South Australia terminated this escapade and in 1927 he ended up at Wyndham, Western Australia, as district medical officer. There he purchased a small single-engine, single-seater aircraft, assembled it and taught himself to fly. After crashing his aeroplane, he sailed for Melbourne in 1928, calling at Darwin on the way. He was persuaded by the chief medical officer, C. E. A. Cook [q.v.], to remain; he spent five months in North Australia’s health service, becoming very aware of the communication problems there.

Fenton subsequently made his way to England and in October 1929 joined the Royal Air Force as a flying officer (medical). He gained navigation qualifications, but resigned in February 1930 after disputes over regulations. On 11 November 1932 at the register office, St Martin, London, he married Eve Ryan-Gallacher; they were later divorced. Back in Australia next year, he took various short-term posts while seeking flying medical positions. He maintained contact with Cook and in March 1934 was appointed medical officer, Katherine, Northern Territory. There the attraction was the offer of mileage for the small Gipsy Moth aircraft he had acquired. Operating as pilot as well as doctor (unlike those of what was to become the Royal Flying Doctor Service), with Cook’s support he formed the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service.

Over the next six years Fenton, tall, lean and bespectacled, became well known and respected by communities, pastoral properties and missions throughout the Top End. His kindness and determination to help became legendary. He also received attention from the media, both local and national, for his daring rescues, escapades, and occasional pranks, which often brought him into conflict with aviation regulatory authorities. Cook remarked on his `resolute devotion to duty’, his `compulsive acceptance of challenge’ and his `wilful disregard of personal hazard’. Fenton’s solitary, resilient figure contributed much to an enduring Northern Territory self-image. His other historical contributions to the Territory were to demonstrate the usefulness of aircraft as a means of communication in the difficult terrain and to press for the construction of rural landing strips. Awarded King George VI’s coronation medal (1937) and the Oswald Watt gold medal (1937), he was appointed OBE (1941).

On 17 June 1940 Fenton was called up for active service as a pilot officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He completed a flying instructor’s course at Camden, New South Wales. Posted to the Northern Territory in February 1942, he was appointed commanding officer of No.6 Communication Unit in December. His group of aircraft, known as `Fenton’s Flying Freighters’, provided transport and rescue services to military bases as well as unofficial medical support to missions. In August 1943 he was promoted to temporary squadron leader. His RAAF appointment terminated on 11 January 1946.

That year Fenton joined the Commonwealth Department of Health in Brisbane. While he was there he wrote a lively and popular account of his pre-war years in the Territory, Flying Doctor (1947). At the registrar-general’s office, Sydney, on 10 October 1949 he married Sheila Ethyl Young, née Pigott, a trained nurse and a widow; they were to be divorced in October 1959. Transferring to Melbourne in 1949, he remained with the department until his retirement in March 1966. On 29 March 1963 he married Lavinia Florence Catalano, née Robinson, a divorcee, at the Presbyterian Church, Winchelsea. He was awarded the Cilento [q.v.] medal in 1971. Survived by his wife, he died on 27 February 1982 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was cremated. He had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hill, Flying Doctor Calling (1948)
  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (1988)
  • D. Carment et al (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (1990)
  • E. Kettle, Health Services in the Northern Territory: A History 1824-1970, vol 1 (1991)
  • Commonwealth Dept of Health, Health, June 1966, p 27
  • series A1928, item 716/9, and series A9300, item Fenton C C (National Archives of Australia)
  • Commonwealth Dept of Health, staff file, 1936-46 (Northern Territory Archives)
  • interviews with L. Lockwood, C. E. A. Cook, C. C. Fenton and B. A. Fenton (typescript, 1980-83, Northern Territory Archives).

Citation details

Brian Reid, 'Fenton, Clyde Cornwall (1901–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fenton-clyde-cornwall-12483/text22455, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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