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.
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.
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.”