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The Flying Doctor (1941)


Far from medical facilities on an outback station, a station worker is struck down with an attack of acute appendicitis. In a re-enactment of an actual event, the coordinated efforts of the Flying Doctor, the Australian Aerial Medical Service (AAMS) and radio communications operators save the stricken stockman’s life. Within four hours, the patient is stabilised, transported by air and road to the nearest base hospital and undergoes an emergency operation.

Curator’s notes

The Flying Doctor depicts the lifesaving work of the AAMS in a neat five minute package that begins with the stockman presenting symptoms and ends four hours later in the operating theatre. It emphasises the complex cooperation and coordination needed to attend to a single emergency incident. By the end of the film, the point is clearly made – the narrator pronounces that the AAMS ‘mantle of safety’ makes it possible for the outback population to continue expanding. Through their work, no one is further than four hours away from medical assistance anywhere in Australia.

The scenario depicted in this film, while told through dramatised re-enactment, was one familiar to the Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Flying Doctor Service and the Australian Inland Mission, on his journeys into Australia’s inland. Flynn told many stories to illustrate the need for medical care in remote locations. One such story is that of Jimmy Darcy, a stockman who was hurt in a fall at Ruby Plains Station, 75 kilometres south of Halls Creek in Western Australia in 1917. Darcy was transported to Halls Creek, 12 hours away by buggy, but on arrival there was no doctor there. Friends then attempted to contact a doctor by telegraph. After relaying the injured man’s symptoms, the doctor gave instructions to operate on Darcy. It was a ten day journey for the doctor by car, horse-drawn sulky and foot to reach Darcy, by which time – due to an abscessed appendix – he was already dead. This dramatic story emphasised the need for emergency medical care in the outback and enabled Flynn to advance his cause for an aerial medical service. The Aerial Medical Service (the precursor to the Royal Flying Doctor Service) was established in 1928.

The film was sponsored by the Shell Company of Australia, which has had 90 years of involvement with filmmaking, during which time it produced hundreds of documentaries. During a Shell mapping survey in 1939, Herschells Films produced two films for Shell – Through the Centre (1940) and Wandering Westward (1941). It was during the filming of Wandering Westward that they came across the activities of a flying doctor stationed in the Port Hedland area. The scenario for The Flying Doctor probably evolved from this experience and the well-known story of Jimmy Darcy. Shell’s interest in making a film like The Flying Doctor tied into its own interests in opening up Australia’s interior through the development of transport and communications. The Shell Film Unit’s feature documentary The Back of Beyond (1954) covered remote terrain similar to that in The Flying Doctor. Tom Kruse – Royal Mailman of the Birdsville Track and main character in The Back of Beyond (1954) – like the flying doctor, provided communities with a connection to other parts of the country.

Herschells Films was a Melbourne-based production company which produced short documentaries and newsreels from 1912 up until the 1940s. Herschells worked on a number of other promotional documentaries sponsored by the Shell Company of Australia including The Origin of Oil (1923), They Serve (1940) and Timber (1947).