How an accident at Mount Isa Mines in 1927 led to the flying doctors

A. Affleck, Pilot; Rev. JA Barber; Dr. G. Simpson.QANTAS VICTORY. Photo: National Library of Australia.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the birth of the Flying Doctor service.

Much of the information in the article came from a book Angels in the Outback by former Australian Inland Mission director Max Griffiths.

Since then I was contacted by Mount Isa historian Barry Merrick who told us that like the information on the RFDS history site, important details have been left out when it came to the accident in Mount Isa in 1927 that had a direct bearing on the service.

“I researched this information and have collated it from late July 1927 to August 2nd 1927, including photographs,” Merrick said.

“Dr George Simpson was conducting what we call today a feasibility study into medical services for the Outback. However, on August 1 1927, a miner was thrown down a shaft here and was unable to be transported to Cloncurry by ambulance, in those days the road was via Duchess. MIM hired the QANTAS mail plane to evacuate him to Cloncurry Hospital.”

Merrick forwarded a compilation he put together of the events based on newspaper reports and diaries from the era.

In 1927 Mount Isa was four years old, there were two hotels, two shops, a picture show, and a couple of boarding houses. Harry Smith had installed an ice works and the railway line was approaching from Duchess while a plane brought the mail.

Dr Simpson started his study of medical services with a visit to Camooweal in July 1927 where he reported there was a bush hospital of eight beds and a resident doctor.

Driving to Cloncurry – which took him 26 hours via Duchess – he noted on July 31 “lunching at a dry creek we arrived at Mount Isa about 3:30. It is a flourishing tin town, houses, and mines, supporting a luxurious pub.”

“We called on the local doc., Dr. Doreen Hungerford, who lives in a tidy house set on high piles. No drunk could negotiate the stairs to her consulting room,” Dr Simpson wrote.

“She is a gallant, capable girl, and very popular with the 200 odd inhabitants in the town. We had not long to exchange compliments here as our objective was still far ahead.”

By the time Simpson had arrived in Cloncurry on August 1 there was an accident at the mine in Mount Isa. As reported in the parliamentary proceedings “(William) O’Brien and two mates were being lowered down Doherty’s shaft in a skip. When 6 or 7 feet above 300-ft. plat the skip stopped momentarily and tipped the three men into the shaft. O’Brien’s pelvis was fractured. The other men were not hurt.”

The injured miner could not be transported safely by road to Cloncurry Hospital which was eight hours away road trip, so they rang the hospital for medical assistance.

ODoherty Shaft with the shaft entrance sloping down to the left. Photo: Mount Isa Mines Photographic Collection.

According to the Queensland Times (August 3) “QANTAS received a call from Mount Isa, for a plane into the Cloncurry Hospital a man whose spine was injured. The mission doctor (Simpson) volunteered to go with the plane, and was allowed to do so.”

According to Dr Simpsons’s Journal “About midday Mr. Evans (pilot) came across and said he was flying out to Mount Isa to bring in a case of a fractured pelvis and spine. I had offered to go with him when the trip was first projected the evening before, and he now said he would be delighted to take me.”

They went straight out to the Cloncurry aerodrome 4km away and were soon flying over Cloncurry in the QANTAS DH50.

“We passed high over Duchess, then turned to the right, and we were soon swooping down on Mount Isa, and the waiting group beside the ambulance,’ Dr Simpson wrote.

“Dr Hungerford was rather surprised to see me again, but we had little time for exchange of compliments, as we had no lunch and wished to get back as soon as possible.”

Because the mail plane was not fitted out for the evacuation the QANTAS mechanic and Dr Simpson made adjustments to accommodate a stretcher and ensured it was safely anchored by arranging extra supports.

Then he carefully directed the loading of the suffering man on to the aircraft and attended him during the return flight.

QANTAS Plane Hermes at Cloncurry. L:R: Ambulance Officer Jack Lisson; Dr. George Simpson; Pilot Mr. Evans. Photo: National Library of Australia.

Dr Simpson said the vibration on the return trip upset O’Brien, so he gave him morphia and some brandy “which he promptly vomited”.

“Evans made a beautiful landing, and the aerial medical service of the A.I.M. was an established fact,” he wrote.

“The ambulance was waiting to convey the patient to hospital, and it was a rough, bumpy trip – much worse than the air part.”

Merrick wrote that unconfirmed reports said O’Brien was very vocal about his experiences.

“I suffered sheer hell, agony,” O’Brien told everyone, “but that was while I was in the ambulance. Red dust had blown in drifts across the road and we had to crash through these like a boat through waves, spraying dust in all directions. Every jolt sent me through the roof with pain. In the air, though it was just like heaven: it was smooth and painless in comparison”.

“The trip gave Simpson a valuable experience of the problems associated with carrying a prone patient in an aircraft,” Merrick concluded.

“Doctor George Simpson was able to demonstrate the use of an aerial service for medical evacuations and in May 1928. The Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service was operational and later became the Royal Flying Doctor Service.”

Corella Creek murder mystery

This is Corella Creek 75km east of Mount Isa and 45km west of Cloncurry. I’ve driven over it hundreds of times on the Barkly Hwy between the two North West Queensland towns in the last five years. This photo taken on Friday was the first time I’ve walked across the bridge.IMG_0226

I’ve stopped at Corella Creek before, however. On the western side there is a parking area and a small monument that commemorates Burke and Wills. The explorers passed this way north and south in their ill-fated 1860-61 expedition. The inscription says “this obelisk was placed here by Cloncurry Shire Council, Mount Isa Mines and Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd to commemorate the expedition of Burke and Wills who crossed this spot on the 22nd January 1861 on their journey across the Australian continent.”

94140743_10222377023076355_5645102832571908096_n.jpgI was back on a mission. A few days earlier a man had put a photo on Facebook of an inscribed cross for a murdered man. The murdered man’s name was Mark Barlow and his cross was supposedly “500m south of Corella Creek bridge on the east side of the creek”. I discovered there was more to Barlow’s death and was determined to find the cross for myself. So I parked at the obelisk west of the creek and set out.


I walked down to the Creek and found my first surprise. There was water in it. I assumed the creek would be dry and I could simply walk down the middle of it until I spotted the cross. Plan B called for me to take off my walking shoes and socks and get my feet wet. I could see a track on the east side about 100m south of where I stood. I had to be careful. While initially the water was ankle deep, the rocks below were slippery. Then about half way down it got deeper and I got wet up to my upper thigh. I gingerly kept going with my phone in my hand to avoid it getting wet in my pockets. I finally got to the path on the other side but needed to clamber under a barbed wire fence to keep going. It was undignified and I still had no clue where the cross was.


On the east side I picked up a cattle trail and immediately assumed this was how the guy who found the cross got there rather than the precarious cross-creek path I chose. But I could see no cross. Almost about to give up and turn back, I finally found it off to my left, hidden in high grass in a copse, well away from the track.IMG_0221.JPG

The cross was in the shape of propellor blades as Mark Barlow was an aircraft mechanic. Each blade had a tribute from friends and family. The topmost blade had an inscription from Mark’s parents Don and Chris which said he was “quiet achiever, honest and strong” and most shockingly “murdered at this place on the 4th March 1993.” Satisfied with my find I walked back to the car. The track led to the road and I didn’t get wet again on the return leg.IMG_0223.JPG

But who did it and why? The North West Star of March 21, 1993 held part of the answer to the murder mystery. It revealed the body of a missing 27-year-old Sunshine Coast helicopter pilot, Mark Barlow was found lying in a clearing by a roadside near the Corella River. Police were baffled and appealed for help, putting a mannikin dressed as a motorcyclist on the road next to a motorbike. No one had answers. Mark’s parents Don and Christine came from Kawana Waters to Mount Isa to also appeal for help.94140743_10222377023076355_5645102832571908096_n.jpg

They said Mark left their house on March 3 heading for Victoria River Downs in the Northern Territory where he was an aircraft mechanic. He was never heard from again. At the end of the month Mount Isa police found he had been robbed, giving a motive but no suspect. Then on March 29 a national event occurred that reverberated in Mount Isa. Three men Leonard Leabeater, Robert Steele and Raymond Bassett finished off a nine-day rampage across Queensland and New South Wales, resulting in their taking hostages in a siege in a farmhouse at Hanging Rock Station, Cangai, near Grafton, NSW. They threatened to kill people indiscriminately.

Cangai farmhouse. Photo: Getty images

The siege was notorious for the actions of A Current Affair reporter Mike Willesee who rang the farmhouse and spoke to the murderers and the children live on air. The three men held police at bay with guns for two days until Leabeater killed himself and Steele and Basset surrendered. The children escaped unharmed. The trio boasted about having killed five people already. According to Leabeater, they had been on the run from South Australia where he claimed unjust accusations of indecent behavior to girls and harassment by police.

Robert Steele

They travelled from SA north to Queensland and Steele killed Barlow in Mount Isa. In a chilling interview Steele said Barlow was sleeping by his motorcycle on March 21. Steele said he slit his throat and shot him twice in the head for his money. Steel also confessed to killing 14-year-old mum-to-be Deborah Gale in a burned out trailer in Dalby, Queensland. He stabbed Debbie, then shot her in the head, loaded her body into a trailer and set her alight. Steele said she was his girlfriend, and said he shot her because she was going to tell police about previous crimes. On the way south into New South Wales, the three men needed a new car as police had a description of theirs. They stopped a car near Armidale and shot the two men who were occupants. They shot a third man who happened upon the scene. All three died.

Steele was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences plus 25 years without parole. He hanged himself in his cell in Goulburn Jail on 23 December 1994. Bassett was sentenced to consecutive sentences of life imprisonment for the Queensland murders, with the Queensland sentencing judge ordering him to serve a total non-parole period of 34 years.