Reflections - Dr Jean White the First Female Flying Doctor

Date published

01 Sep 2020
By Simpson, George, Dr. - Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland., Public Domain,

My story begins with a beautiful young woman, with a dream.  This dream lead her to outback Australia, pioneering an industry that had previously been entirely dominated by men, to become the renowned “Guardian Angel of the Gulf”.

Jean was born in 1905 to parents John and Salome White.  John was a school teacher, the couple raising their three children Salome Jean, George Glynn and Mary Margaret Freda White in Hawthorn, Victoria. John and Salome should have been very proud of all their offspring, with all three of them continuing on to tertiary study.  Salome Jean and George Glyn studying and going on to practice Medicine, while Mary studying music at the Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.  The White family proving to be very committed to study and their chosen fields of interest.

Pictured: Jean with other early members of the RFDS, including founder Rev. John Flynn see more here

Salome Jean White, known as Jean to her family and patients, attended Melbourne High School and received a scholarship to attend the University of Melbourne and graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1929.  After her graduation 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.  In 1937, this Victorian doctor became the first female flying doctor, not only in Australia, but most likely in the world, when she joined the Australian Inland Mission in Queensland. Stationed at Croydon, in North Queensland, Dr. White was appointed to assist Dr. Alberry, whose base was 220 miles away, at Cloncurry. Together, the two doctors provided medical care to an area larger than New South Wales.

At this point, I guess it is important to point out that this amazing woman is part of my family. Jean was my Maternal Grandmother’s (Constance Wall – nee Jeffery) first cousin.  To me, Jean was a legend in our family – and obviously that legend status spread further than just my family. Growing up in rural Victoria, I could only dream of the adventures, sights and encounters that Jean must have experienced.  I grew up asking to hear the stories of an amazing woman, who also happened to be a family member, but was more like a superhero to me.

The AIM Experiment

Jean was in her early 30’s when she commenced work for the Australian Inland Mission.  She was always described by my family as a beautiful woman, who was quite small in stature (but big in heart), with a fair complexion, green eyes that sparkled with mischief and fun, and lovely light coloured hair that she always wore in two plaits, wrapped around her head.  My Mother tells me that Jean often wore jodhpurs as her everyday attire – my thoughts would have been that these were much more practical for clambering around in a plane, treating a patient, rather than a dress. On her arrival to the Inland Mission, Dr Jean White completed four months of training in Cloncurry, before being based with one nurse in Normanton. During this training, Jean learned to become proficient with the use of the transceivers (pedal wireless radios) that were the only means of communication between doctors and patients in the very sparsely populated area. Dr White and the nurse, along with a pilot flying an aircraft which had been donated by Qantas, provided a seven day a week flying medical service to an enormous area, covering more than 65,000 square miles of Queensland Gulf Country. I find it difficult comprehending such an enormous area when conditions and technology (or lack of it) were so primitive compared to what we are able to enjoy in this day and age. Very few people in that era (and probably also today) could understand the vastness of the area Jean covered, until Jean and her pilot went missing for five days. 

Dr Jean White

It was in January 1939, when Dr White and her pilot had diverted around a storm and ran low on fuel.  They were forced to attempt an emergency landing on a boggy claypan about 17 miles north of the Mitchell River Mission Station.  This lead to their Fox Moth plane becoming overturned when the landing gear became lodged in the clay.  An intensive aerial search was conducted. After what must have seemed like an agonising four long days following the crash landing, Jean and her pilot were located – both alive and well (although most likely battered and bruised). The couple had supplies of food dropped to them, while they were left to wait for their rescuers to reach them on foot.  Jean was reported to have lamented that her and her pilot’s biggest challenge while they waited to be found, was dealing with the relentless onslaught of sand flies and mosquitoes.  Jean told the story of how they searched through the plane and found a parcel containing mosquito nets.  Jean was fearful that they may have been killed by the mosquitos (as they were carriers of malaria), since they had been exposed to these pests for 48 hours prior to discovering the mosquito nets.  Dr Jean White was ordered to rest and recuperate at Mission Station for four weeks after this ordeal. I am reliably informed by my wonderful Aunt (also a Nurse and Midwife) that Jean, despite orders of rest and recuperation, attended a mercy mission a few days after their rescue – completely unfazed by her ordeal. 

Jean White

Dr White must have found her role enormously interesting and varied in what she would see and experience. As part of her duties, Jean would have to submit a monthly report to Mission Headquarters, located in Sydney, New South Wales. Included in her reports would be mileage flown and the cases attended (including any important details).  I’m sure these reports would have reflected how important and most likely hazardous, the vital service she provided was.  Jean recalled that many of the calls the service received were for those who had been injured on outlying stations, or who were suffering from tropical diseases.  Many urgent cases where it was suspected there were fractures, were flown to Cloncurry where there was an x-ray machine.  Some patients even had to be flown to Brisbane. Other more common of Jean’s duties were maternity work – luckily Jean was well qualified in the area of women’s and children’s health.  Apparently problems developed in Normanton, due to a rise in venereal disease.

Pictured left to right my Grandmother Constance Wall, Jean White and my Grandmother’s sister Verna Cooper. 

Jean would recall how some men didn’t want to be examined by a “Sheila”, and for that reason demanded she be replaced.  I can only imagine that due to Jean’s caring and reassuring nature, that there would have been plenty of patients who would have preferred to have been seen by Jean and actually requested her by name.  Jean didn’t earn her title of “Guardian Angel of the Gulf” for no reason and would have been a very welcome sight to anyone in need.  I can only imagine that such a young and petite woman would have been seen as a novelty to many when they first met Jean – most likely the total opposite to any doctor they had ever met before in remote Australia.  Jean would communicate with her family of her experience of living in Queensland - how the weather was typically hot, but bearable, and not that unpleasant.  She spoke about how the country was always so dry, except in the wet season, when the rivers would run so high that it was impossible for people travel by road for health care.  Jean talked with her country cousins how, even though they lived in cattle country, it was very dissimilar to living in Victoria, as they had to use goats milk instead of what she grew up drinking – cow’s milk.  Jean reported that they would always have easy access to an abundance of beef, but there were no sheep, but that they would make do by using the next best alternative, by eating goat – developing an acquired taste for it. Jean missed her fresh vegetables, as all the ones she had access to there were tinned or dried, but they were able to get fresh butter.Jean overcame many trials and tribulations during her time in this service – none less than the plane crash and being missing in the outback, nearly eaten alive by mosquitos, for several days.

I cannot get over the strength of character of this woman. Jean had never even flown in a plane until commencing this position. I have a fear of flying and cannot comprehend getting back into a plane and “just getting on with the job” after experiencing what must have been a terrifying plane crash.  Although I was a very young child when Jean passed away – the stories of this amazing woman have impacted my life in so many ways.  From a young age I was always fascinated by this  woman.  The fact that she was not only the first female Flying Doctor in Australia, but also in the world, was inspiring to me. To a young girl, this meant that my dreams really did have the possibility of coming true, that gender stereo-typing was changing, that women were strong and brave and could take on the world.  I guess part of my future career, as a young girl was very much influenced by Dr Jean White.  I had family who were strongly suggesting that I should pursue a career in Medicine (as there is a strong family history of Doctors, Paediatricians, Nurses and Midwives) , but as a teenager, the thought of so many years of study, after having completed so many years of primary and secondary schooling, that wasn’t particularly appealing to me.  I spent a year working with my Father on the farm, before completing my Nursing Degree.  I have since gone on to study Midwifery (which had always been my ambition from the age of only 7 years), and then a Master’s in Child, Family and Community Health.  Another dream that I had as a child, was to be a team member with the Royal Flying Doctor Service.  Due to life events (having four children, very closely spaced, more study and working on the family farm and at the local hospital) – the dream of working for the RFDS, hasn’t quite come to fruition -  yet (may also have something to do with more than a slight fear of flying!).  

I often think of Jean and the fact that until she commenced working as a Flying Doctor, she had never even been in a plane – then I think about how she survived a plane crash and still continued to work as if nothing had happened, and then I think that I really need to “get over myself”.  I still contemplate studying medicine and often think with all the years of study I have completed, if I had have studied Medicine, I would well and truly be qualified now.  However, there is no use looking back and thinking “what if”.  If I have learned anything from the wonderful example my inspiring relative Jean provided me – never give up, follow your dreams and make a difference. If you think about the era that Jean grew up in, it was very  uncommon for girls to complete their education, let alone go to university to study.  I cannot help but think about the difficulties Jean must have faced, even just obtaining a place at university – being “just a woman”. Jean was reported by family to really love “the simple things in life”.  I see this as a huge contrast to the strength of character she must have had to move away from the familiarity of the city and her family, to the outback and all the unknowns that it would have had for her.  A city girl in a land that “wasn’t any place for a woman”.  Dealing with many male patients who didn’t want a “Sheila” coming near them.  To have faced so many barriers – gender stereo-typing, a sometimes hostile landscape, a life so vastly different from anything she had ever experienced before.  I also wonder how many male doctors she had to compete against for this new position, in such a patriarchal society.  Jean truly was a woman before her time.  It makes we wonder how many times she was told that she couldn’t do something, because she was a woman.  What these history texts will not tell you is that Jean shared a love of Gooseberry Jam with my Grandmother (Constance Wall – Jean’s first cousin), and that she loved to go picking mushrooms with another cousin – Elizabeth Davis (nee Jeffery).  Such simple pleasures in life.  Jean loved to come and visit – stay with her “Country Cousins”, I’m sure this good wholesome country living must have in some way ameliorated her life in the outback, which would have been a stark contrast to the city living with which she was very accustomed to.  Jean was reported to have not thought it was anything special that a woman had been given the position she had been.  She always said that she loved the life she lived in the service of the outback and that she felt she was really accomplishing something.  Jean’s contract with the service concluded in August in 1939, then returning to private practice in Melbourne.

Ella Hayes

I reflect on family stories and have read history texts with pride, of Jean’s achievements and courage – not dissimilar feelings that I have when I think of my beautiful daughter, Ella Hayes.  Ella struggled at school due to bullying, but has since blossomed – obtaining many modelling jobs – she is not just beautiful on the outside, but also on the inside too.  Ella, from a young age always dreamed of flying to the moon.  She had an agreement with my wonderful Father Wilbert (Bert) Laws (her dear, and much-loved Grandpa) – that she would design the rocket ship and he would build it, and they would fly to the moon together (Pictured right).  Unfortunately, my dear Dad passed away before they could complete this mission together.  Soon after my Father passed away, Ella commenced her flight training at the age of only 14.  Ella has flying lessons as often as we can afford them and very competently flies solo.  To say that I’m proud, is an understatement!  My parents always raised me to be a strong, independent woman – I can see that my daughter has inherited this trait – clearly some very strong genes have been passed down from the White family.  You never know – Ella could end up piloting one of those planes (a newer version of what our ancestor Dr Jean White flew the skies of the outback in), providing much needed healthcare to those in need.

Reflections shared by Heather Hayes.