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Flynn, Francis Stanislaus (Frank) (1906–2000)

by Wendy Beresford-Maning

This article was published online in 2022

Francis Stanislaus Flynn (1906–2000), Catholic priest and ophthalmologist, was born on 6 December 1906 in Sydney, sixth of nine surviving children of Irish-born John Joseph Flynn, medical practitioner, and his New South Wales-born wife Maud May, née Witton. Frank’s family was distinguished by urbanity and civility, intellectual endeavour, devotion to the Catholic faith, and service to others. Five of his brothers became medical doctors, and his two sisters became Benedictine nuns.

Flynn was educated first at home by his sisters and then at the Brigidine Convent school, Randwick, before attending Marist Brothers’ College, Darlinghurst. He studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1930), proving to be a brilliant student, and was selected for the Australian universities rugby team (1929). In 1931 he followed the advice of his brother Jim, an ophthalmic surgeon, by sailing to London to study at the Royal London Ophthalmic Hospital (Moorfields). There he completed a University of London diploma in ophthalmic medicine and surgery and practised surgery, while spending most of 1932 in Vienna researching retinal detachments. In London his early contributions to ophthalmic practice included developing the drug mydricaine to maximise pupil dilation for examination, and designing an improved diathermy machine to perfect the technique for operating on detached retinas.

While living in London Flynn made contact with some of the great Catholic thinkers of the day, including Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox. However, it was a fellow house surgeon at Moorfields, Charles Newlyn-Smith, who rekindled his childhood interest in entering the priesthood. By the time he returned to London from Vienna, he knew that he needed ‘to direct my life towards a more spiritual objective’ (Allen 1994, 17), and happily realised that this could be combined with his commitment to medicine.

In 1934 Flynn returned to Sydney. He was drawn to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) through his family’s connection with the Randwick parish that the Order served. His commencement of studies in December 1935 at the Sacred Heart Monastery, Kensington, attracted coverage by Smith’s Weekly. While studying philosophy, he encountered a future bishop of Darwin (1938–49), Francis Xavier Gsell, who was to profoundly influence Flynn’s ministry with the Territory’s Indigenous peoples.

In 1946 Flynn was appointed administrator of St Mary’s Cathedral in Darwin, giving him spiritual and temporal responsibilities across the Territory. The cathedral building was showing its age, and he and Bishop Gsell initiated a national appeal to fund a new one. He completed a diploma in anthropology from the University of Sydney (1947) and published Distant Horizons: Mission Impressions, the first of his four popular books and many articles on outback Australia. His energy and readiness to challenge convention also led to his 1957 article in the Medical Journal of Australia that overturned ‘the generally accepted contention that little or no active trachoma existed in Australia’ (Flynn 1957, 269). He proposed a ‘practical, efficient mass campaign’ (Flynn 1957, 276) that included treating schoolchildren to attack the disease in its early stages, along with radio talks and other measures to raise awareness.

The new St Mary’s Star of the Sea War Memorial Cathedral and Shrine of Thanksgiving was finally blessed and opened in August 1962. Flynn was also the regional superior of the MSC in the Northern Territory (1960–65), and a member of various community organisations, including the Museums and Arts Galleries Board, the Darwin Auxiliary of the Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the Royal Darwin Show. He developed dry eye himself, and in 1967, working with Gerard Crock, professor of ophthalmology at the University of Melbourne, and A. Schulmeister of the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, devised clear acrylic goggle attachments to the corners of spectacles to provide sufferers with synthetic tears.

Late in 1967 Flynn transferred to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea as administrator of St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Port Moresby, and director of Catholic Health Services. As in Darwin, one of his first tasks was to oversee the building of the new St Mary’s Cathedral, which was completed in August 1969. While president (1968–70) of the Medical Society of Papua New Guinea, he successfully petitioned the Australian prime minister, (Sir) John Gorton, to establish a medical faculty at the University of Papua New Guinea.

Returning to Darwin in 1977, Flynn resumed his missionary activities in the Territory and also his ophthalmic research, leading to the development of horizontally slitted eye masks to help macular degeneration sufferers read. In 1979 he was appointed AO, and in 1993 AC. Academic honours came with honorary degrees from the University of Sydney (MD, 1981) and Northern Territory University (DSc, 1993). He was awarded the Cross Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice in 1990, and in 1996 became an honorary life member of the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists.

 The ophthalmologist Fred Hollows paid tribute to Flynn as ‘the man behind his fight for sight’ (Allen 1994, 205) in northern Australia. Although some of his MSC peers found him overbearing, others credited his charm and humour. One of his sisters concluded that ‘God’s special gift to Frank was his personality’ (Allen 1994, 55). In March 1999 he moved back to Sydney to take advantage of nursing home care not available to him in Darwin. He died there on 29 July 2000 and was buried in the St Mary’s Towers MSC cemetery at Douglas Park.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Allen, Doris M. Frank Flynn M.S.C.: A Remarkable Territorian. Kensington, NSW: Chevalier Press, 1994
  • Flynn, Frank. ‘Trachoma Among Natives of the Northern Territory of Australia.’ Medical Journal of Australia 2, no. 8 (24 August 1957): 269–77
  • Flynn, Frank, with Keith Willey. The Living Heart. Sydney: F.P. Leonard, 1964
  • Flynn, Frank, in association with A. Schulmeister. ‘Keratoconjunctivitis sicca and New Techniques in Its Management.’ Medical Journal of Australia 1, no. 2 (14 January 1967): 33–41
  • Ganter, Regina. ‘Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC).’ Accessed 8 February 2022. http://missionaries.griffith.edu.au/mission/missionaries-sacred-heart-msc. Copy held on ADB file
  • Gibson, Eve. ‘Flynn, Francis Stanislaus (Frank).’ In Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography. 2nd ed. Edited by David Carment et al., 191–92. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 2008
  • Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Archives, Kensington, NSW. Flynn, Frank. Reminiscences and other papers, 1988
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, FLYNN FRANCIS STANISLAUS
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney). ‘Young Medico Lays Down the Scalpel for the Scapular.’ 4 January 1936, 3

Additional Resources

Citation details

Wendy Beresford-Maning, 'Flynn, Francis Stanislaus (Frank) (1906–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/flynn-francis-stanislaus-frank-31650/text39127, published online 2022, accessed online 12 August 2022.

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