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Portrait of Flynn in his early 20s.

The Reverend John Flynn, OBE (25 November 1880 – 5 May 1951) was an Australian Presbyterian minister and aviator who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world's first air ambulance.

Flynn was born in the gold rush town of Moliagul, about 202 kilometres north-west of Melbourne. His mother died in childbirth when Flynn was three, and he spent part of his childhood growing up with relatives. He moved to the town of Braybrook Junction (now Sunshine in the western suburbs of Melbourne) as a child, and there he completed secondary school in 1898. Later he worked as a schoolteacher.[1] By 1903 he decided to become a Presbyterian minister, and entered Ormond College, a college of the University of Melbourne to study divinity in 1907. He graduated in 1910 and was ordained in 1911.

Throughout his training, Flynn had worked in various then-remote areas through Victoria and South Australia, and his second posting after ordination was to the Smith of Dunesk Mission at Beltana, a tiny settlement 500 kilometres north of Adelaide. Beltana is a relatively isolated place even today, and in those days was extremely remote. By 1912, after writing a report for his church superiors on the difficulties of ministering to such a widely scattered population, Flynn was made the first superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission. As well as tending to matters spiritual, Flynn quickly established the need for medical care for residents of the vast Australian outback, and established a number of bush hospitals.

By 1917, Flynn was already considering the possibility of new technology, such as radio and aircraft, to assist in providing a more useful acute medical service, and then received a letter from an Australian pilot serving in World War I, Clifford Peel, who had heard of Flynn's speculations and outlined the capabilities and costs of then-available planes. This material was published in the church's magazine, the start of Flynn turning his considerable fund-raising talents to the task of establishing a flying medical service. The first flight of the Aerial Medical Service was in 1928 from Cloncurry, Queensland. A museum commemorating the founding of the Royal Flying Doctor Service is located at John Flynn Place in Cloncurry.

Portrait of Flynn taken in 1929.

Surviving the Great Depression, Flynn guided the organisation, lobbying both politicians and his church, to take the service nationwide. In 1934 the Australian Aerial Medical Service was formed, and gradually established a network of bases nationwide. Flynn remained the public face of the organisation (through name changes to its present form) and helped raise the funds that kept the service operating.

Bob Hughes, who was Postmaster-General at the time, was very impressed with Flynn's work, and offered to take over the provision and maintenance of the entire radio network, converting every pedal wireless into a Public Telegraph Office. This was rejected out of hand by Flynn, as otherwise he could not prevent messages placing bets on horses and ones ordering liquor from being sent and received.

While undoubtedly most famous for the organisation that became the RFDS, Flynn's work with the Mission extended well beyond it. As well as the nursing homes, Flynn instituted travelling ministries - ministers travelling vast distances on horseback through the inland. In 1939 Presbyterian Church of Australia elected Flynn to the primus inter pares role of Moderator-General.

John Flynn's grave outside of Alice Springs.

Flynn married the secretary of the AIM, Jean Baird, in 1931 at the relatively advanced age of 51. He finally retired and died in Sydney, and was cremated and his remains placed under a large boulder from the Devil's Marbles. In an unfortunate postscript to Flynn's life, the Northern Territory Department of Public Works had taken the rock from a site sacred to its traditional owners. After many years of negotiations the rock was returned to its original location in 1998 and replaced with one acceptable to the Aboriginal people, both of the original rock's home and the people on whose land his grave lies.

Flynn was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1933.[2] He is featured on one side of the current Australian 20 dollar note. The federal seat of Flynn in Queensland was created by the Australian Electoral Commission in 2006.

Qantas has recently announced that they will be naming one of their Airbus A380's after John Flynn in recognition of his contribution to the aviation industry and particularly to his achievement of founding the Royal Australian Flying Doctors Service.[3]

Author Ion Idriess wrote Flynn of the Inland in 1953 which told of Flynn's life and the establishment and running of the Australian Inland Mission.


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