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Gibson, Freda Evelyn (1908–1977)

by Mary McHugh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Freda Evelyn Gibson (1908-1977), flying doctor, was born on 7 February 1908 at Fullarton, Adelaide, twin daughter and third child of South Australian-born parents Albert Paul Oscar Ehmcke, engineer, and his wife Flora Evelyn, née Stoyel. Freda was educated at Walford House and Poltoonga schools, and at Presbyterian Girls' College where she was a prefect, played in the top hockey, basketball and tennis teams, and was dux (1925). She then studied medicine at the University of Adelaide (M.B., B.S., 1931). At Scots Church, North Terrace, on 3 February 1933 she married a fellow graduate Dr Robert Welch ('Roy') Gibson (1907-1948) and later that year joined him in general practice at Ceduna where they used a cottage hospital, staffed and equipped by the Anglicans' Bush Church Aid Society. The Gibsons were the only doctors in the far west and often travelled long distances on rudimentary roads to cope with all kinds of emergencies. Both of them were courageous, decisive and competent.

A new B.C.A. hospital was built at Ceduna in 1937. In the following year the Flying Medical Service was inaugurated. Its Fox Moth biplane, capable of carrying a pilot, a doctor and a stretcher, enabled the Gibsons to reach patients quickly—if there were a landing-strip available or one could be hastily prepared—and saved them much driving and fatigue. They regularly visited the small hospitals at Penong, Cook and Tarcoola (which were all equipped, and often used, for emergency surgery), as well as the Koonibba Aboriginal Mission and outlying settlements. At Cook, patients frequently helped to clear goats from the airstrip. All dispensing had to be done from Ceduna until 1948. The Gibsons' practice flourished. During Roy's lengthy bouts of sickness, Freda managed alone: she performed intricate surgery under primitive conditions in station homesteads, took blood for transfusions, attended accidents and ran her growing household.

When her husband was absent on part-time duty in Adelaide with the Australian Army Medical Corps in World War II, Freda again shouldered the burden of the 80,000 sq. mile (207,199 km²) practice. She also acted as quarantine officer and sometimes boarded ships (off Thevenard) by Jacob's ladder, a risky feat for a non-swimmer. With her children, she took her turn at watching for enemy vessels. She had a gun and knew how to use it. In the 1920s a man had threatened her father with an axe. Freda politely told him to put the axe away or she would shoot him in the arm; he ignored her and she coolly winged him. She found flying-work relaxing and refreshing, and was expert at adjusting the throttles as the pilot swung the propellers. In one three-year period she made 214 flights, covered 37,683 miles (60,645 km) and treated 2769 patients; her journeys ranged from 23 to 350 miles (37 to 563 km) from Ceduna. Freda was appointed O.B.E. in 1946.

The Gibsons worked together until Roy's death in 1948; he was widely mourned by a widespread community cheered to learn that Freda would continue. In 1951 she was joined by Dr Merna Mueller. Coober Pedy was added to the list of the towns they visited and the B.C.A. opened a wireless base linked by transceivers to the out-hospitals, stations and homesteads. Gibson left Ceduna in 1954 to practise at Fullarton. On 11 May 1968 at St Ignatius' Catholic Church, Norwood, she married Mervyn George Kennedy, an accountant and a widower. She continued to work part time, but her health slowly deteriorated. A tall, slender woman with prematurely white hair and an indomitable spirit, she had been the first woman flying doctor in Australia. With the help of the B.C.A. Sisters, whom she frequently praised, she saved many lives and healed countless people. She gave unstinting service to her patients, some of whom avowed that the mere presence of 'Dr Freda' made them feel better. Survived by her husband, and by the son and two daughters of her first marriage, she died on 12 June 1977 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated. Her estate was sworn for probate at $135,453.

Select Bibliography

  • Greater Than Their Knowing (Adel, 1986)
  • Presbyterian Girls' College (Adelaide), Black Watch, 1924, pp 3-7
  • Real Australia, Dec 1933, Jan 1937, June 1938, July 1954, Oct 1940, Dec 1949
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Jan 1946
  • Bush Church Aid Society Council minutes, 14 Mar 1968
  • private information.

Citation details

Mary McHugh, 'Gibson, Freda Evelyn (1908–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-freda-evelyn-10298/text18221, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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