Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Flynn (1880–1951)

by Graeme Bucknall

This article was published:

John Flynn (1880-1951), by unknown photographer, c1929

John Flynn (1880-1951), by unknown photographer, c1929

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24680767

John Flynn (1880-1951), Presbyterian minister, founder and superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, was born on 25 November 1880 at Moliagul, Victoria, second son of Thomas Eugene Flynn, schoolteacher, and his wife Rosetta Forsyth, née Lester. Educated at Snake Valley, Sunshine and Braybrook primary schools, he matriculated from University High School, Carlton, aged 18. Unable to finance a university course, he became a pupil-teacher with the Victorian Education Department and developed interests in photography and first aid. In 1903 he began training for the ministry through an extra-mural course for 'student lay pastors', serving meanwhile in pioneering districts of Beech Forest and Buchan. His next four years in theological college were interspersed with two periods on a shearers' mission and the publication of his Bushman's Companion (1910).

On completion of his studies for ordination Flynn volunteered for appointment in 1911 to the Smith of Dunesk Mission in the northern Flinders Ranges, South Australia. This parish extended to the rail head at Oodnadatta where the mission had placed a nursing sister and planned a nursing hostel; under Flynn's practical assistance, it was open on 11 December. Next year Flynn surveyed the Northern Territory and on receiving his two long and detailed reports, one on the needs of Aboriginals and one on the needs of white settlers, the Presbyterian General Assembly that year appointed him superintendent of its Australian Inland Mission, which, in principle, it established at the same meeting. The South Australian, Western Australian and Queensland assemblies transferred their remote areas adjoining the Northern Territory to Flynn's care, and his new charter was initiated at Oodnadatta Nursing Hostel. The mission he was to direct for another thirty-nine years commenced operation with one nursing sister, one padre, a nursing hostel and five camels. It began as it continued 'without preference for nationality or creed', to become a great mantle of safety composed of a network of nursing hostels and hospitals each in close association with a patrol padre.

It took another seventeen years before Flynn's caring service to remote homesteads and communities was completed with the establishment of the A.I.M. Aerial Medical Service at Cloncurry in 1928 and Alfred Traeger's invention of the pedal radio in 1929. Flynn's writings in the Inlander indicate that this fourfold concept was his goal almost from the beginning. In his understanding of community development, he was ahead of his time, for the service he envisaged was to be a framework within which outback communities might 'structure and co-ordinate' their own 'canopy' of safety. By 1918, although World War I impeded development, in addition to the first nursing hostel and patrol based on Oodnadatta Flynn had established patrols based on Port Hedland and Broome in Western Australia, Pine Creek in the Northern Territory and Cloncurry in Queensland. He had also appointed nursing sisters to Port Hedland and Halls Creek in Western Australia and Maranboy and Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, though the latter appointment soon lapsed because of lack of a suitable building. Five years later, Flynn had twenty-three nursing sisters in the field.

The nursing hostel designs were usually prepared by Flynn himself after consultation with architects, engineers and local people to ensure that the design was suitable to climatic conditions and available building material. His design for the Alice Springs hostel, published in 1920 in the Inlander, illustrates his research, having ducted aircooling via a tunnel under the ground floor where wet bags filtered the dust and cooled the air drawn by convection through the wards to the lantern roof. This massive stone building with wide verandahs was completed in 1926.

Between 1913 and 1927 Flynn's magazine, the Inlander, led his battle for a 'brighter bush'. His photographs, documents, statistics, maps and articles publicized the needs of the people and northern Australia's potential for development, which he argued could only be effected by providing security for women and children. He did not overlook Aboriginals, and devoted the first issue of the 1915 Inlander to photographs and stories of the plight of the fringe-dwellers in particular: 'A blot on Australia is shown on our frontispiece … There is no call for sensation. Sensation is too cheap. We need action'. He confessed that everyone was ignorant of how to help but that 'it is up to us to educate ourselves and mend our ways'. He claimed that Aboriginals were neither incompetent nor 'beneath the practice of self-help' and noted also the care that they gave their old men. He continued: 'We who so cheerfully sent a cheque for £100,000 to Belgium to help a people pushed out of their own inheritance by foreigners—surely we must just as cheerfully do something for those whom we clean-handed people have dispossessed in the interests of superior culture'.

There were few in that time who were as outspoken or perceptive as Flynn on this subject—a fact rarely recognized by either Church or public. Within his own Church, another department was responsible for the care of Aboriginals, but Flynn's A.I.M. hospitals were then, as now, open to Aboriginals who were encouraged to seek the medical care offered. Long after Flynn's death, however, allegations mainly by Dr Charles Duguid in his book Doctor and the Aborigines (1972), that A.I.M. hostels had refused to treat Aboriginals and that Flynn had become indifferent to their plight, roused heated controversy.

Flynn's strategy for the location of his nursing hostels and associated patrols was to choose what he called the 'port', whether inland or on the sea front, serving the surrounding outback, and then ensure that the need was confirmed and the hostel supported by the local people who were encouraged to 'take over the entire management wherever they desired and when they were able to bear the burden'. This was not only true of the nursing hostels or homes, for in 1933 when the A.I.M. Aerial Medical Service was transferred to the national Australian Aerial Medical Service, all radios and other equipment went as a gift to the people and communities concerned.

The second phase of Flynn's strategy was marked by his concentration on radio and the 'flying doctor'. As early as 2 May 1925, he declared that 'the practicability of the Flying Doctor proposal depends almost entirely on the widespread adoption of wireless by bush residents' to provide the link between doctor and patient. The press responded to Flynn's ready use of publicity. Later that month he was in Adelaide with George Towns, a returned soldier radio technician, to take delivery of his specially designed Dodge Buckboard for their first inland experiment in radio transmission. They drove to Alice Springs via Beltana, Innamincka, Birdsville, Marree and Oodnadatta conducting test transmissions as they travelled, using a pulley drive from the jacked-up back wheel to generate electricity for radio transmission. The following year Flynn persuaded Alfred Traeger, whom he had met in Adelaide, to come to Alice Springs for further experiments, this time using a Lister engine to generate power at their nursing home base and heavy copper-oxide batteries at Hermannsburg and Arltunga. Their success, including the transmission of the first radio telegram, was only partial, for the type of battery used was unsuitable for remote homesteads.

Meanwhile Flynn had been working on his other project, the aerial medical service. This vision had been inspired in 1917 through a letter to Flynn from Lieutenant Clifford Peel of the Australian Flying Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Later, Flynn's friendship with (Sir) W. Hudson Fysh, a founder of Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd (QANTAS), brought him further technical information and encouragement, as did Hugh Victor McKay. When McKay died in 1926 he left £2000 to finance Flynn's experiment on the proviso that the Presbyterian Church doubled that. The Church assembly approved the experimental Aerial Medical Service on condition that Flynn raised £5000, which he obtained with modest help from the civil aviation branch of the Department of Defence and the Wool Brokers' Association. QANTAS leased on very favourable terms a De Havilland 50 aircraft, the first machine available and suitable for aerial medical work. History was made and Flynn's vision became a reality on 17 May 1928 when Dr St Vincent Welch, pilot Affleck at the controls of Victory, answered the first call received by the A.I.M. Aerial Medical Service. Next year Flynn was a delegate to the first world conference on aviation medicine in Paris. Fysh later wrote, 'Flynn the Dreamer … who saw a vision of a Flying Doctor well before the days of practical flying, but kept it firmly fixed in his mind', was a 'practical man when the time came for action'.

This second period also marked Flynn's recognition of the role the two-way radio was to play in the socialization of people in remote areas as they developed a community that is 'heard' but rarely seen. Later he gained Adelaide Miethke's support for the establishment of the Alice Springs Aerial Medical Service: on a visit, she recognized the potential the 'flying doctor' network offered for a 'school of the air' which she later inaugurated. In Sydney on 7 May 1932 Flynn, aged 51, married his devoted secretary, Jean Blanch Baird. 'Thus for the last nineteen years of his life' wrote Scott McPheat, 'the man who championed homelife in two-thirds of Australia himself enjoyed the “glow of a fireside”'.

The final phase of his work began with his merging his A.I.M. Aerial Medical Service into a national community service having resources far greater than any Church could provide. Flynn's dealings with members of State and Commonwealth parliaments now made him a representative for the scattered settlers in two-thirds of Australia for whom he had become the advocate for an adequate aerial medical service. He had made his first move in 1931 but the Depression not only kept the matter from the agenda of the premiers' conference that year, but, without Flynn's indefatigable publicity, it would have put his flying doctor out of the air. By 1933 he judged the time opportune and made his major overtures through W. Forgan Smith, Queensland's premier. At the same time he maintained a flow of correspondence with key State and Federal parliamentarians. In 1933 the premiers resolved that 'this Conference approves a general co-operation of the Governments of the Commonwealth and States with a view to furthering the Australian Aerial Medical Service'.

Flynn still needed the approval of his Church whose General Assembly was meeting later that year. In a letter to his friend and confidant J. Andrew Barber, he revealed something of what this move was costing him personally, yet knowing that he and the Church could act in no other way to be true to the A.I.M.'s vision, 'For Christ and the Continent'.

If we do not become a national body the A.I.M. will be in danger of losing revenue … I mean we must either shrink back into a mere preaching agency, or, as a dynamic partner in a national enterprise to help the frontier people, we establish ourselves as a power greater than when we had the isolated areas to ourselves … If the Assembly baulks at the hurdle and refuses to invite everybody interested to join the A.M.S. adventure, I believe the A.I.M. will shrivel into a selfish little runt … I repeat my fears, that our colleagues do not realise that our conditions are being completely changed.

Flynn's arguments inspired his Church assembly and he won the day on his terms. That year he was appointed O.B.E.

Much of his time was now spent in setting up the State sections of the National Aerial Medical Service of Australia. (The name was changed in 1942 to the Flying Doctor Service of Australia and the designation of 'Royal' was added in 1954). Flynn's concept of the structure of the N.A.M.S. demonstrated his concern for community partnership through a series of State sections and local committees 'unified by their common Articles of Association' which he described as 'Multiple Heads—one Heart'. Throughout Australia he addressed public meetings, and held press interviews and consultations until the N.A.M.S. became a reality with the constitution that he envisaged.

In 1939 Flynn was elected to the three-year term as moderator-general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. In 1940 and 1941 the degrees of D.D. were conferred on him by the University of Toronto and the Presbyterian College at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. The war and post-war period inhibited any new work until his closing years when the Old Timers' homes in Alice Springs, and Warrawee, the Far North children's holiday and health scheme in Adelaide, were established.

Survived by his wife, Flynn died of cancer in Sydney on 5 May 1951 and his ashes, at his request, expressed through his widow, were interred at the foot of Mt Gillen, Alice Springs. At this service his senior padre, Kingsley Partridge, said, 'Across the lonely places of the land he planted kindness, and from the hearts of those who call those places home, he gathered love'. In 1956 the John Flynn Memorial Church was opened in Alice Springs.

Flynn enjoyed a remarkable range of friendships and from them his fertile imagination drew concepts that enriched people and places. His letters reveal his dry sense of humour and irony, but above all his compassion. He was an inveterate talker, holding listeners far into the night, but he was also a good listener. His ecumenicity was shown by his being one of the founders of the United Church in North Australia. He accepted a specific charter and refused to be side-tracked into other areas of his concern, believing that a given task must recieve total commitment. The same standard was expected from those who served in the A.I.M. with him. When he said 'A man is his friends', he expressed something akin to Martin Buber's philosophy that 'All real living is in meeting'. His meeting with other people often revealed a compulsive humanism which gave meaning to his own life as an ordained minister of his Church and to the faith by which he lived and served.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. McPheat, John Flynn, Apostle to the Inland (Lond, 1963)
  • M. F. Page, The Flying Doctor Story, 1928-78 (Adel, 1977)
  • Australian Inland Mission, Inlander, 1913-14, 1915, 10 Dec 1972
  • Presbyterian Church of South Australia, Minutes of Proceedings, Mar 1942
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14 July 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 May 1940, 2 Sept, 2 Oct 1972
  • Canberra Times 1 Sept 1972
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1972
  • Age (Melbourne), 2, 6 Sept 1972
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2, 6, 12, 13 Sept 1972, 10 Jan 1973
  • National Times, 16-22 Nov 1980
  • J. G. Bucknall and R. V. Guthrie, Conquest of Distance (manuscript, privately held)
  • MS 3288, Flynn papers, and MS 812, G. Simpson papers, and MS 5574, Commission on National Mission, Uniting Church (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Bucknall, 'Flynn, John (1880–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Flynn (1880-1951), by unknown photographer, c1929

John Flynn (1880-1951), by unknown photographer, c1929

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24680767

Life Summary [details]


25 November, 1880
Moliagul, Victoria, Australia


5 May, 1951 (aged 70)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.