Community and Lifestyle

The cattle station tragedy that helped the RFDS to fly 90 years ago

Beef Central, 09/03/2018

How a tragedy involving a little-known outback stockman in 1917 helped to inspire the creation of one of the world’s most important and cherished rural medical services.



FOR days in 1917, newspaper readers around Australia were gripped by the story of a young stockman’s desperate struggle for life.

Mustering cattle in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia on July 29, 2917, James Darcy fell from his horse during a stampede and suffered serious internal injuries.

The 29 year old stockman was taken on an 80-kilometre, 12-hour ride over a rough track to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek in the far north of Western Australia.

With no local doctor, the Halls Creek postmaster Fred Tuckett bravely performed emergency surgery with a razor and penknife, following instructions over morse code from Dr Joe Holland more than 2800km away in Perth.

The surgery appeared successful but pneumonia set in, so Dr Holland then travelled from Perth for 13 days in a mercy dash to save Darcy.

His arduous journey involved a week on a cattle ship to Derby and six days in a Model T Ford held together by leather straps, bumping and thumping across the outback, to save the stockman’s life.

At one point Dr Holland had to use the rubber tubing from his stethoscope to siphon the last drops of petrol from a can. The car finally conked out 40km from Halls Creek.

Dr Holland walked for two hours to a nearby cattle station and then rode through the night to reach the town at daybreak.

Tragically, time and distance beat him, and the young man died just a few hours before the doctor arrived.

This story was further inspiration for the founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, John Flynn, to demonstrate the need for an aeromedical service that could traverse Australia’s vast distances.

Jimmy Darcy’s heartbreaking story is told in a new book, The Man on The Twenty Dollar Notes, in which 84-year-old Brisbane author Everald Compton documents the extraordinary life of Reverend John Flynn.

That same year Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a young Victorian medical student and pilot shipping out to the war in France, wrote to Flynn with a passionate letter suggesting that aviation could transform the Outback.

Reverend John Flynn was deeply affected by Darcy’s death and wanted to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for people living, working and travelling in the outback.

Peel was shot down and killed the following year, unaware his letter was used by Flynn to lobby for a service that that would save thousands of lives.

It took a decade of hard work for Flynn’s prayers to take flight but on 2 November 1927, the Brisbane Courier reported that a “try out” of an aerial medical service was ­starting in Queensland’s “lonely places” and that Flynn and Alfred Traeger, who was working on a pedal-powered wireless, were in western Queensland making ­arrangements.

The Reverend John Flynn

On 17 May 1928 – more than a decade after Jimmy Darcy’s death – pilot Arthur Affleck finally took off from Cloncurry for Julia Creek in Flynn’s first flying ambulance, leased from the new Longreach-based bush airline, QANTAS.

Covering more than 7.15 million square kilometres, today’s RFDS has a fleet of 69 aircraft.

Flynn died in 1951 but as he said: “If you start something worthwhile, nothing can stop it.”


On May 17, 2018, the RFDS will celebrate the 90th anniversary of its maiden flight.


The Australian $20 note, launched in 1994, bears images representing aspects of the early Royal Flying Doctor Service – plane, radio, medical chart, pastoral care and in the centre, the founder, Reverend John Flynn.


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  1. Ron, 26/03/2022

    Good day dear lady, sir we are preparing a trip of half a year through Australia and hope that in Sep the borders of WA are up for tourists. I read with appropriate awe the story about James Darcy and the RFDS. We also want to visit Halls Creek and I wonder if the grave depicted in the photo is in the cemetery in Halls Creek?
    Best regards Ron (The Netherlands)

  2. Loretta Smith, 09/03/2018

    Great story behind a great bush service! Here here to Darcy, Clifford and John

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