Women of the North

Celebrating the fascinating lives of women in the history of North Queensland

Dr Jean White – Australia’s first female flying doctor

In 1937, a Victorian doctor named Jean White became the first female flying doctor in Australia (and probably the world) when she joined the Australian Inland Mission in Queensland. Stationed at Croydon, in North Queensland, Dr. White was appointed to assist Dr.  G. W. F. Alberry, whose base was 220 miles away, at Cloncurry. Together, the two doctors provided medical care to an area larger than New South Wales.


DrJean White, flying doctor at Normanton; Mrs Simpson, Dr. Simpson’s (photographer) wife; Rev. Fred McKay, A.I.M. Patrol Padre; Dr. Gordon Alberry, flying doctor at Cloncurry; Rev. John Flynn, founder and A.I.M. superintendent; Mrs. JeanFlynn, his wife and former secretary – picnicking at Cloncurry, 1937. Photo: State Library of Queensland.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery from the University of Melbourne in 1929, Dr White worked at various hospitals, including the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Adelaide Children’s Hospital, Crown Street Women’s Hospital (Sydney), and the Caulfield Convalescent Hospital, before taking up her appointment in the North. She told a reporter from the Cairns newspaper, the Northern Herald, that she loved the life.

“I have my own plane, a Fox Moth, piloted by Plot C. Swaffield. It has folding seats, so that a stretcher can be accommodated comfortably if a patient requires moving to hospital or to Cloncurry for X-ray treatment. “Both Dr. Alberry’s and my plane carry mails between Cloncurry, Normanton and Karumba, but arrangements are carefully made so that at least one plane is always in readiness for emergency calls.” At Karumba the planes land on a salt pan in dry weather, but in the rainy season the mails are dropped. Should both planes be in use when an urgent call comes an extra plane may be summoned from Longreach, but such an emergency is very rare, Dr. White explained.[1]

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Dr Jean White, flying doctor. Photo: The Daily Telegraph, 1 February 1939.

But Dr White, who was only in her early thirties, would have been something of a novelty to the people of the Gulf country. She was the only woman in the flying medical service, and her arrival in the remote North was a surprise to many.

“Some of them were amazed at the idea of being attended to by a woman. Others seemed to prefer it,” Dr White said.

Most of Dr White’s patients were accident cases from outlying station properties, but there was also a lot of maternity work, and luckily she was well qualified in the area of women’s and children’s health. Problems arose in Normanton though, where there was a high rate of venereal disease. Male patients didn’t want to be examined by a “sheila”, and wanted her replaced.[2] But Dr White soon worked her way into the hearts of the gulf community, and after a series of mercy missions, her approaching plane became a welcome sight to those in need.

The biggest difficulty the flying doctors faced was getting to patients during the wet season. Very few of the landing grounds were able to stand up to heavy rain without becoming boggy. With the help of the Defence Department, improvements were steadily made, and many homesteads soon had “a reasonably good landing ground” within a distance of five miles.

Flight safety was a high priority, which meant that the Qantas plane Dr White was assigned was overhauled every 25 flying hours. Flying at night was prohibited, but Dr. White and her pilot were often at the aerodrome before dawn ready to make a start as soon as the instruments were visible.

“Usually we prefer to follow the coast or a river as far as possible,” she said, “but at times we have to detour to avoid storms. The pilot points out storm clouds to me, and I quite enjoy our dodging them.”

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Clipping from The Telegraph, 31 January 1939.

Dr White goes missing
In January 1939, Dr White and her pilot went missing for several days when their plane overturned upon landing on a boggy claypan about 17 miles north of the Mitchell River Mission Station. The pilot had diverted around bad weather, but ran low on fuel, forcing him to make an emergency landing. The Telegraphreported on the search:

An intensive aerial search is being conducted today over a wide area for Dr. Jean White, flying doctor of the Australian Inland Mission, and Pilot D. Tennent, who have not been seen since they left Delta Station on Friday in a Fox Moth plane bound for the Mitchell River Mission Station. A Dragonfly and a Fox Moth are concentrating on the district from Normanton to Mitchell River. The flying boat on the route from Darwin to Townsville has been advised to keep a sharp vigil when over the locality, this afternoon. If the search today fails, a DH86 which flew from Brisbane to Mount Isa will join the aerial searchers tomorrow and possibly an R.A.A.F. machine. In the absence of news from the flyers, it is considered certain that they have landed at a place from which they have been unable to take-off again, and that they have been prevented by water crossings from reaching a cattle station. “We feel quite confident that they are down and cannot communicate with anybody,” said a Qantas Empire Airways official to-day. As all the company’s planes carried emergency rations, the flyers would have enough food for several days.[3]

Four days later they were located – alive and well – and food supplies were dropped to the pair who then had to wait for rescuers to get to them on foot. Dr White and her pilot’s biggest challenge while they waited to be found was the constant battle with sandflies and mosquitoes. In desperation, they searched the plane and found a parcel containing two mosquito nets. Dr White told one of her rescuers that because mosquitoes in that area carried malaria, she feared that they would be killed by the mosquitoes (if they had been exposed to them for 48 hours without the nets). Dr White was ordered to rest at the Mission Station for four weeks.

A photo of Dr White’s upturned plane can be seen at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-296180864/view
(This image is still in copyright, so has not been included in this blog)

1] The Northern Herald (Cairns), 28 May 1938
[2] Rudolph, Ivan, John Flynn: of flying doctors and frontier faith, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 2012
[3] The Telegraph, 31 January 1939

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1 reply

  1. Thankyou for sharing this! Amazing story.

    Liked by 1 person

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