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Timothy Joseph (Tim) O'Leary (1925–1987)

by Barry Smithurst

This article was published:

Timothy Joseph O’Leary (1925-1987), flying doctor, was born on 3 May 1925 at Abbeydorney, County Kerry, Ireland, son of Florence O’Leary, veterinary surgeon, and his wife Julia, née O’Connor. After attending the Christian Brothers’ Belvedere College, Dublin, Tim studied medicine at University College, Dublin (MB, B.Ch., 1949, National University of Ireland). Awarded first-class honours, he also graduated the same year with a bachelor of the art of obstetrics and prizes for medicine and senior clinical surgery. In 1950 he trained as a surgical registrar at the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham, England. As ship’s surgeon in the City of Perth, he voyaged to India, where he worked in hospitals at Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). In 1952 he was second surgeon in the New Australia, a liner bringing British migrants to Australia. Staying in New South Wales, he worked as a clinical assistant chest physician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and as a medical officer in the tuberculosis eradication section, Department of Health.

In 1953 O’Leary joined the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service of Australia, Queensland section, and was posted to Charters Towers. He later recalled that colleagues in Sydney considered he had made an ‘impetuous, foolhardy and irresponsible decision’. On 10 September that year at St Columba’s Catholic Church, Charters Towers, he married his Irish fiancée Catherine Marion Burke, a hairdresser, who had arrived in Australia a week earlier. On 22 October Mrs O’Leary died when the flying doctor’s plane crashed on Cheviot Hills station, north of Hughenden. The pilot, Captain Martin Garrett, was also killed and O’Leary suffered head and internal injuries. After recovering, he returned to duty.

In February 1958 O’Leary was appointed RFDS acting medical superintendent and was transferred temporarily to Brisbane. On 21 May 1959 at St Agatha’s Catholic Church, Clayfield, he married Yvonne Margaret Dowdell, a nurse. In 1959-66 he was based at Charleville. He published a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia in 1961 on problems involved in the aerial transportation of patients and in 1965 in his E. S. Meyers lecture, hosted by the University of Queensland Medical Society, spoke on medical evacuations by aeroplane. Deputy medical superintendent (1965-69) and medical superintendent (1969-76), he worked from Mount Isa (1966-69), Brisbane (1969-72), Cairns (1972-77) and Charleville (1977-80). Knowledgeable about aircraft, he obtained a private pilot’s licence in 1966. In the Queensland Society of Health’s Elkington oration for 1968 he described his experiences as a flying doctor.

O’Leary was awarded a diploma in aviation medicine in 1972; he was elected (1973) a founding fellow of the Royal Australian College of Medical Administrators. Having suffered a heart attack, he retired from the RFDS in 1980 and entered private practice on the Gold Coast. In 1985 he was appointed a life member of the RFDS and was elected a councillor of the Queensland section. He had been appointed CBE in 1960.

Known as ‘Dr Tim’, O’Leary was a highly competent doctor, especially skilled in obstetrics. He empathised with his patients, who appreciated his sense of humour as well as his diligence in caring for them. Red-headed and voluble, he had a fiery temper that upset some people. He was keen on horses and riding and at one time held an amateur jockey’s licence. Survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons, he died of chronic lymphatic leukaemia on 20 July 1987 at Runaway Bay and was buried in Allambie Garden of Memories cemetery, Nerang. Two memoirs, North and Aloft and Western Wings of Care, edited by John Pearn and Graham Anderson, were published in 1988.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Page, The Flying Doctor Story 1928-78 (1977)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 23 Oct 1953, p 1
  • Townsville Bulletin, 23 July 1987, p 8
  • Queensland Flying Doctor: Magazine of the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (Queensland section), vol 11, 1988, p 60
  • Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland section) archives (Brisbane).

Citation details

Barry Smithurst, 'O'Leary, Timothy Joseph (Tim) (1925–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Timothy O'Leary, 1969

Timothy O'Leary, 1969

State Library of Queensland, 193540

Life Summary [details]


3 May, 1925
Abbeydorney, Kerry, Ireland


20 July, 1987 (aged 62)
Runaway Bay, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (leukemia)

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