While the Royal Flying Doctor Service is an Australian institution, we seldom know about the three women who built it.



Because it seems the world is getting weirder and weirder, here another episode in my brief series of inspirational people. So we don’t forget that this is not normal and that not everybody you meet or read about is a moron. Today, I would like to introduce you to three women whose lives have been intimately connected to one of Australia’s icons: the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Every year, the organisation flies the equivalent of 35 times to the moon and back, and from the start, the driving forces have been women. Of course, it was Reverend John Flynn who got the Service up and running, but without women, it would exist today. Although Flynn’s face features on our 20-dollar note, these feisty females are less well-known. That will not do, so here are three of them: Jean White, Robin Miller and Beth Garrett.

In 1937, what would become the RFDS was still a precarious little experiment. It had been running for less than ten years and because it was popular with the people in the bush, the Queensland government, up for re-election, decided that it would be a good idea to take it over. Not that they necessarily wanted to run it, but it looked good and who cared what would happen in the future? Sounds like politics, doesn’t it?

Anyway, Flynn needed to stop this from happening and because he was a gifted PR person, he thought that appointing a doctor ‘with a bit of flair to capture attention’ would be a good start. That would divert the attention away from the government plan and back onto his Flying Doctors. Going through the pile of applications at the start of 1937, he came across a letter from one J. White. Jean White, a woman doctor. Early thirties, good pioneering stock, with a qualification from Melbourne University.

In eight years, she had been a Resident Medical Officer in both Adelaide and Sydney. A woman! That, Flynn thought, was guaranteed to attract the attention he needed to save his service. In May, he introduced her to the media, and they loved the romance of a girl with a medical practice of 165,000 square kilometres of bushland. 


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It was soon clear that Flynn had made the right choice. First of all, money to support the service came rolling in. Secondly, Jean White turned out to be hard-working and not afraid to get her hands dirty in difficult circumstances. But there were also some storms brewing. The first had to do with racism. At that time, most hospitals had white and Aboriginal wards, and that was especially complicated for what were then called ‘mixed-race’ patients.

For Dr White, a patient was a patient regardless of their colour and that meant that she often had to spend time and energy fighting the powers-that-be. Another issue was venereal disease. Especially in the mining camps, it was rife, and the men were very uncomfortable with some ‘sheila’ treating them.

At the end of 1937, the Hospital Board decided it wanted nothing to do with Dr White. Flynn was having none of it. He called a public meeting and told the people that they should pull their heads in. His service had provided them with an excellent doctor, who gave her services free of charge. End of. What he did do was give Jean White a different home-base: not Normanton, but Croyden, where they were a little less judgmental. In the first year, Dr White flew 70,000 kilometres. She did telephone and wireless consultations, worked at the local hospital, did clinic runs to homesteads, camps and mission stations, all on top of emergency flights. 

In 1938, the newspapers started to call her the ‘Guardian Angel of the North’; ‘young, golden-haired and vivacious’, the saviour of the bush. In January 1939, her patients and others were reminded of the sacrifices Jean White made on their behalf.

On the 29th, White and her pilot, Douglas Tennent, went missing after they left Delta Station en route to Mitchell River Mission. For days, search parties combed the area and it took five days to find the pair. After running low on fuel, Tennant had been forced to make an emergency landing on a boggy claypan, flipping the plane in the process. Dr White’s biggest worry had been the incessant sandflies and mosquitoes and the malaria they potentially carried. Luckily, there were also mailbags on the plane and one of the packages contained mosquito nets, which is what White and Tennant used while they waited for help. Another lurking danger were the crocodiles thrashing in the river not far away. It took a few days, but finally they were found and rescued by a policeman on a raft and two Aboriginal men, paddling on logs. Australia was relieved. ‘Dr. Jean White’, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote, who ‘was doing some splendid humanitarian work in Northern Queensland’ was safe after a near-death experience. That silenced the critics.

Another crash tied another cracker female to the RFDS. In 1953, a terrible accident took place, when Dr Tim O’Leary, his wife Catherine, a nurse, and pilot Martin Garrett ferried a five-year-old boy and his mother from Cheviot Hills Station back to the base at Charters Towers. There was a problem with the plane and shortly after take-off it ‘plummeted to earth’, as the Adelaide Chronicle reported the day after.

The article carried a picture of Catherine O’Leary in her wedding dress. She had arrived from Ireland seven weeks before and had married her husband a few days later. She was 22 years old. Martin Garrett was a newlywed too. He was 26. It was the worst accident in the history of the FDS and it shook the service to the core. Martin Garrett and his wife Beth had been the topic of another newspaper article when they got married in May 1953. By then, Beth had a commercial licence as a pilot and was, the article in the Melbourne Argus read, ‘the only woman flying instructor in Victoria’. When Martin died, Beth was pregnant. First, she moved away and concentrated on safely delivering her daughter. Then she worked as a pilot elsewhere, before coming back to the nest in 1958, providing another first for the Service: the first female pilot. Not just at the RFDS, but in the whole of Australia. It would take another twenty years and a case in front of the Equal Opportunity Board, before Deborah Lawrie secured her job at Ansett, being bullied all the way. By that time, Garrett had been flying for decades. 


Every year, the organisation flies the equivalent of 35 times to the moon and back, and from the start, the driving forces have been women. Of course, it was Reverend John Flynn who got the Service up and running, but without women, it would exist today.


Mostly working in North Queensland, nature often forced her to make it up as she went along. Once she had to navigate by lightning flashes, keeping an eye on the coastline, after losing radio and instruments during a storm. ‘At no time’, said the doctor on board that flight, ‘did she display anything but quiet confidence and courage’. There were a few near-misses, but every time she was the calm and collected safe pair of hands at the controls.

She managed to land on airstrips full of kangaroos, get her craft out of the mud where it had been bogged and saved a plane whose engine had run out of control and would not shut down. It won her the Brabazon Cup for outstanding services to aviation in 1974. In 2000, Beth Garrett carried the Olympic Flame. And as it happened, her daughter now also works as a pilot.  

One of the next women to make the headlines was Robin Miller. She was the daughter of aeronautical engineer Horrie Miller and author and historian Mary Durack. She was also ambitious: in 1962 she graduated as a nurse with WA’s nurses’ medical prize, while also obtaining her pilot’s licence. Two years later she was a triple-certificated nurse at a hospital at Mount Lawley. But that was not enough.

At the time, Western Australia, in particular, was suffering from a polio epidemic. A vaccine had been discovered in 1966, but it was not reaching the outback. So, Robin Miller decided to solve the problem. On the advice of Dr Harold Dicks, the president of the WA branch of the RFDS, she upgraded her private pilot’s licence to a commercial one. Then she asked for and received the permission of WA Health to bring the vaccine to the inland. The problem was that they were willing to give her the medication, but after that, she was on her own.

In early 1967, Miller borrowed money to buy a small plane, packed it up and set off to remote WA. For the next two years, she immunised the outback, supplying 37,000 doses to mainly Aboriginal communities. She flew 69,000 kilometres to do it and earned herself the nickname Sugarbird Lady, after the sugar cubes which carried the oral vaccine. She flew through ‘heavy monsoonal rains, extensive bush fires and mechanical problems’, but regarded all of it as ‘a wonderful apprenticeship’.  

It turned out to be good preparation for her next job as a pilot, and often a nurse, for the RFDS, ‘despite the initial hostility of male doctors’. She wrote a cheerful book about it, telling stories like delivering a baby on board, with the plane on autopilot.

Once, she picked up an Aboriginal man from a small settlement in WA. He was called Udajii and had a tumour on his eye. It was difficult to convince him that treatment would be a good idea, ‘because of a firm, and not perhaps entirely unfounded, conviction that association with white men would send him crazy’, as she wrote in Sugarbird Lady.

In the end, Perth Hospital did cure his cancer, but the community prediction came true as well. Udajii had changed so much in a short period of time that he was no longer really accepted. For Robin Miller, it was a salutary lesson. In 1967, Harold Dicks asked her to pick up an RFDS plane in California and bring it to Perth. It would be the first of nine ferry trips she did for the Service.

In 1973, Dicks and Miller married. That same year, she competed in the Powder Puff Derby, a Trans-America race for female pilots. A few months later, she found a melanoma on her thigh; she died of cancer in 1975. Dicks memorised her by setting up a 50,000 memorial foundation to help nurses get flying licences. Now, female doctors, nurses and pilots are normal for the RFDS. That’s what happens with trailblazing institutions: they don’t even know how far ahead they are.



For this story I have used the following sources:

Robin Miller Sugarbird Lady Adelaide, Rigby, 1979

Ivan Rudolph Flynn’s Outback Angels Rockhampton, Central Queensland University Press, 2001




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