Every country has its stories - those
narratives of people, places and events that somehow define the nation, that
speak to its soul and provide expression for the inner feelings of its
population. Australia has a surprising number of stories, from
and Burke and Wills to
Gallipoli and the
Sydney Opera House. They are
stories that speak of dreams, romance, loneliness, grandeur, courage and
folly. They teach us what it means to be an Australian.
Flying Doctor Service is a classic Australian tale. It is a story of big
dreams, of the outback and of a humble man and his love for God and for
Australia, and his compassion for the under-privileged.
John Flynn was born in
country Victoria in 1880, and he grew up with the sole desire of entering
the service of God as a pastor. Lack of money delayed his theological
training, but when at last he graduated he took a missionary posting in the
outback. There, he was shocked by the appalling living conditions, and thus
began his long quest.
He published the highly popular
Bushman’s Companion guide to life in the outback; he launched a pen-pal
service, so those suffering from isolation could receive letters from city
residents; he started the magazines Outback Battler and Frontier
News; and he established more than a dozen hospitals.
But it was continual frustration at the
vast distances that had to be travelled in order to tend to medical patients
that led to the establishment, in 1928, of his greatest monument, the Flying
Doctor Service. It was the result of a brilliant alliance between medicine
and nascent radio and aviation technology. It came about only after intense
efforts by Flynn and his team to raise funds and then lobby state and
federal government bodies, but it quickly became a core service for those in
Within his own lifetime Flynn became a
hero of almost mythical proportions. A fiercely romanticised account of his
work was published as the book
Flynn of the Inland,
which Melbourne’s The Argus newspaper described as “a story to stir
the blood like the sound of trumpets”. He moved easily among the country’s
Yet he remained a man of moderation and
humility, despite mixing with people at the highest levels of society, and
despite the adulation often accorded him. When he visited an outback
hospital or other centre he took with him his toolkit, and while others
slept he busied himself inspecting the premises and repairing anything not
in good working order.
He was also a man of utter common sense,
who knew how to speak to the people of the outback in a manner they could
understand. According to Ivan Rudolph’s excellent
when Flynn addressed miners he “spoke on mateship, the importance of having
a friend you could depend upon in the bush, and how millions of men had
found that Jesus Christ provided this kind of mateship”.
Handed a boxful of Christian tracts to
distribute to sheep shearers, he was appalled at their content:
“It’s just no good,”
Flynn concluded. “These tracts were written for the city, and mainly for
those who have some knowledge of church terminology. Listen to this one:
‘Since inviting Jesus into my heart, he has become more and more precious to
me.’ The average shearer I met would say, ‘What’s that all about, mate?’ He
might even spit on the ground and walk away in disgust. It’s a good idea to
leave something with the shearers - our friend has given us these with the
best of intentions, but I can’t use them.”
Though strong in his
Presbyterian convictions, Flynn was also determined to make Australia a
better country, and his example shows that he viewed spirituality as vital,
along with a sense of duty. Ivan Rudolph quotes one of his letters:
Our anxiety is not to
make Presbyterians. Our aim is to get a fair deal for all our citizens, to
make our country prosperous and healthy in the best sense of the world -
which starts with the body and ends with the spirit.
The virtue of moderation comes in many
forms: humility, self-control, self-discipline, temperance, modesty. They
all carry different nuances, yet all portray the same basic idea of putting
others before oneself and of avoiding excess. There is a sense of doing
one’s duty, of serving.
Canadian philosophy professor Donald De
Marco, in his book
The Heart of Virtue, said such characteristics allow people to
maintain their balance when the force of their bodily appetites threatens to
violate the order of reason. “These appetites, because they are associated
with the desire for self-preservation, are deeply rooted in human nature
and, consequently, can be very dangerous.”
But he stressed that such characteristics
are “not incompatible with exuberance and zestfulness….Rather, it is the
positive ordering of bodily appetites for the good of the whole person.”
C.S. Lewis, talking about temperance in
the days before it referred just to alcohol, said it applied to all
It meant not
abstaining, but going the right length and no further….A man who makes his
golf or his motor bicycle the centre of his life…is being just as
intemperate as someone who gets drunk every evening.
It cannot be denied that this is a
difficult virtue to teach children, who are naturally self-centred. The
great poet T.S. Eliot commented: “Humility is the most difficult of all
virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of
Thinking well of oneself, without also
thinking well of others, lies at the heart of many of our problems. It has
led to the self-esteem movement, a wave of narcissism, and a sharp drop in
the sense of duty that used to be so common.
In fact, nowadays, if you watch enough
television shows, you may even get the impression that humility and
moderation are vices or character defects of some kind, to be overcome by
shouting about your problems. We live in an up-front, in-your-face age. Each
day we are confronted with talk shows in which actors, sports stars,
television personalities, supermodels and others discuss at length their
feelings and the intimate details of their lives.
So there was a certain irony when, in
1998, Australian supermodel
appeared as a guest on the popular American “Late Show” programme with host
David Letterman, to
discuss her new baby. She revealed that she had named him Flynn.
Here is part of the conversation:
And Flynn comes from, actually, there was a Father Flynn, who set up this
flying doctor service in Australia. And he was Flynn of the Inland.
person almost applauded.
you know, it’s a very Australian thing. Well, then, of course, there was
go back to Father Flynn. The flying…
Flynn. The flying doctor. He would go into the outback?
the outback in Australia. You know, because of the distances.
was very remote. And people were very worried about getting sick.
would go out to treat the Aboriginal folks? Or everybody?
and, you know, the not so Aboriginal folks as well.
when did this happen?
I think it was set up in the ‘20s, in the ‘30s.
in those days, I mean, that was really, he was a pioneer in both aviation
And he was a minister as well. So that if you kicked the bucket. You had it
he had the whole deal?
had the whole deal there.
he was, I remember one time reading several books about the guy. That one
day he was chased back to his plane by dingoes. Aieeeyahhh! Ah! Ah! Savage
snarling dingoes. Aieeeyahhh! Ah! Ah!
do a very good dingo impersonation. Can I see that again?
don’t see a lot of dingoes wearing glasses. Or maybe you do; I don’t know.
Aieeeyahhh! Well, God bless Father Flynn. And you know, it’s a nice, it’s a
nice historical thing to name the boy Flynn.
he’s got a good story going in and things will be great.
Yes, as even one of
America’s top television personalities, David Letterman, recognised, the
Flying Doctor Service is a good story. And it is thanks to the efforts of a
great and humble man. God bless John Flynn.
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