Graphic: RFDS aircraft flies over water

Flying Doctor commemorates Lt Clifford Peel

Date published

19 Sep 2018
A historic black and white photograph of a young male in soldiers uniform.

Today the Royal Flying Doctor Service honours the legacy of a far-sighted young airman and war hero named Lieutenant John Clifford Peel whose vision played a great part in the inspiration and design of the Flying Doctor.

In 1917, Clifford Peel wrote an inspirational letter to Reverend John Flynn, founder of the RFDS, to suggest the use of aviation to bring medical help to the Outback.

Today, 100 years have passed since Lt Peel was shot down in France and died at just 24 years of age, never to know that his detailed letter to Flynn became a blueprint for the creation of Flynn's 'Flying Doctor' scheme. His vision led to the establishment of an Australian institution that has been providing emergency aeromedical and primary health care services to outback communities for the past 90 years. 

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Lt Peel’s passing, members of his family and RFDS representatives travelled to Canberra to attend the Last Post Ceremony and lay wreaths at the National War Memorial. 

Shortly after the Last Post Ceremony, a RFDS PC12 aircraft performed a fly-over of the Memorial in recognition of the wonderful contribution Lt Peel made to the service.

Historic photo of man in pilot outfit

Lt Peel, a Victorian medical student, was a keen reader of Reverend John Flynn’s “Northern Territory and Central Australia – a Call to the Church”. According to his family, it inspired his interest in Flynn’s extraordinary work and set him thinking about the logistics of how Flynn would be able to provide help to people in need who were widely dispersed throughout Australia.

When the Australian Imperial Forces was searching for candidates for their newly-formed Australian Flying Corps in 1917, Peel volunteered and was selected for flying training at the central Flying School in Laverton, Victoria. Whilst at Laverton, the union of aviation and healthcare occurred in Peel’s mind. 

He sent a letter to Flynn, suggesting aeroplanes - which at the time were very novel machines - could carry healthcare to the wide-spread areas of the Australian Outback. Flynn wrote back with great interest, sparking a famous and detailed letter from Lt Peel, sent on the 20 November 1917, whilst on board HMAT Nestor, bound for the United Kingdom. With great insight, Lt Peel outlined the costs and advantages of running aeroplanes compared with the costs and disadvantages of travel on the ground.

Tragically, on 19 September 1918, only 13 months after he sent the letter and weeks before the end of the first World War, Lt Peel's RE8 aircraft disappeared during a patrol in France. 

Lt Peel died at just 24 years of age and never knew that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

Had he lived, there is no doubt he would have returned from the war to help Flynn build the Flying Doctor Service he had clearly foreseen. However Lt Peel had succeeded in conveying his brilliant idea to John Flynn, the man who was able to bring it to life. For the next 10 years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service. Whilst Lt Peel never had a chance to work for the RFDS directly, his legend, inspiration and forward thinking has inspired continued progress and innovation. 

The RFDS now have 69 aircraft operating from 24 bases across the country and provides the finest care to more than 300,000 Australians each year.