Welch, Kenyon St Vincent

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In May 1928, Kenyon St Vincent Welch made the first emergency flight from Cloncurry to Julia Creek, on board a De Havilland model DH50 aircraft hired from the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd (later to become Qantas).[1].

Welch had been selected from 22 applicants responding to an advertisement in the Australian Medical Journal. The position was for a full time doctor, to be paid 1000 pounds per year, whose duties would be to attend all urgent medical and accident cases, as well as to make regular visits to remote places lacking other medical services. It was also stipulated that the Flying Doctor would neither be allowed to practise privately, nor likely have the time to do so.[1]

“There was an outstanding applicant: Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch. He was a well-established Sydney surgeon of early middle age, prepared to leave home, family, and practice for 12 months because he had always wanted to work in some such manner and had been unable to serve in the First World War.”[1]

Welch took up his duties at Cloncurry on 15 May 1928 and made his first flight two days later in a single engine, fabric covered, cabin bi-plane capable of carrying a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of just under 80 miles per hour. Welch and the pilot flew from Cloncurry to Julia Creek, (approximately 100 kilometres) to attend to two patients at the Julia Creek Bush Nursing Home, one of whom had attempted suicide by trying to cut his own throat. Welch landed nearby, walked to the nursing home and successfully performed two minor operations.

Typical entries from the doctor’s diary suggest that it was not uncommon for him to “make a 300km flight before breakfast, perform an operation then be back to base by lunchtime, flying at night only on urgent cases, landing in paddocks and rough clearings.”[1]

Not only did Welch have to fly great distances to try to reach a patient in time, often this was stalled by difficult weather and flying conditions as the following story tells:

In April, 1929… an 80-month-old baby on Koolatah Station, on Cape York Peninsula, was suffering from acute gastro-enteritis. The call for help was carried eighty miles by an Aboriginal stockman splashing through flooded country, then relayed by station telephones until it reached Normanton and was passed on to Cloncurry. Obviously the case was urgent and [the pilot] flew the Victory to Normanton through low clouds and rain… They picked up the stockman and flew north to Koolatah… The clouds grew thicker and lower and the rain heavier until he was barely skimming the treetops… Eventually he sighted the hastily cleared airstrip and landed safely. Dr Welch decided to take the mother and baby back to Cloncurry… and the baby recovered in hospital.[1]

Not all of these early missions had a successful outcome. Sometimes it took so long for the message to get to the Cloncurry base that it was just too late by the time the flying doctor got there. Very soon, however, the service was enhanced by Alfred Traeger’s invention of a pedal wireless (radio) which enabled them to send and receive communications across vast distances. The pedal wireless and the flying doctor were soon to become icons of medicine in the Australian Bush.

Kenyon St Vincent Welch was the first flying doctor and served for one year, before returning to Sydney to continue his practice. In his year of service, he treated 225 patients and made 50 flights, covering an area of 32,000 kilometres.[1]

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Citation: Mellor, Lise (2008) Welch, Kenyon St Vincent. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney.

An alternate version appears in: Mellor, L. 150 Years, 150 Firsts: The People of the Faculty of Medicine (2006) Sydney, Sydney University Press.