Adelaide House: A Real Outback Hospital

Jun 1, 1995Abstract, Article, History

Title Adelaide House: A Real Outback Hospital
Publication Status 3d (Australian Doctor c. 1995)
Dr J H LeavesleyMember of the Australian Society for the History of Medicine
President of the Western Australian Medical Museum Australia
Review Status SR
Copyright Copyright of this article is vested in the author. Permissions for reprints or republications must be obtained in writing from the copyright holder. This article has been republished here with permission from the copyright holder.

Recently I visited Adelaide House in Alice Springs, the lovingly preserved hospital established years ago as part of John Flynn’s ‘Mantle of Safety’ for the medical care of citizens of the Australian outback. I must admit I approached the tiny place with that cynicism and world weariness which 42 years of medical practice tends to foment when proudly presented with yet another clinical facility. Up to that moment my view was that when you have seen one you have seen ’em all. But this time I was wrong: I left touched in a way no other medical institution has succeeded in doing since my graduation. Let me tell you about it.

John Flynn, founder of the Flying Doctor Service which services the medical needs of the Australian outback, and affectionately known as Flynn of the Inland, was born in 1880. He elected to become a minister of religion and completed his pastoral training in the Presbyterian Church in 1911. He then went to work in a patrol ministry in the north of South Australia.

One of the first things to strike him was how isolation affected the health of both white and aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and he reported his views to his superiors. As a result the Australian Inland Mission was set up and he was appointed superintendent.

Using a string of camels, an itinerant patrol ministry was set up in 1914, but, although the churchmen were away for months at a time, Flynn knew this was not enough to really help those in most need. The most pressing requirement, as he saw it, was a hostel of some kind to be set up in the middle of all this vast country to add to the Cottage Hospital which had already been established at Oodnadatta and which was dedicated to medical and spiritual care, regardless of nationality or creed.

Flynn had visited the Alice Springs Telegraph Station in 1913, which, with the adjacent town of Stuart, boasted a population of 18 men, 5 women and 7 children. He was moved by the pleas of the locals for help, especially by stories of having to travel hundreds of kilometres to be confined in childbirth. So he proposed a Bush Hospital be built there, similar to the one in Oodnadatta.

Sister Jean Finlayson came up to Alice Springs to get some medical order into the tiny settlement. Not a woman to stand on ceremony or to shilly shally, she moved into “Myrtle Villa”, a grand name for a two room shack with a smoke blackened interior and a sagging calico ceiling. It stood at the foot of Anzac Hill, a site today marked by a date palm in front of the Mobil Service Station.

When Flynn appealed for funds, he had 71 subscribes from all over Central Australia, but he was especially touched by an enthusiastic band of young people in South Australia who raised $1,110, a considerable effort in those days. As a result of their concern, it was decided to christen the building ‘Adelaide House’.

The contract for the stonework was let in 1920. A major snag was that in such desolate country there was no sawn timber for form work. Flynn enjoyed a challenge and had the wood carted up the 520 km of sandy track from Oodnadatta to the Alice on the backs of camels.

The stonework was at last finished in 1923, but drought delayed the final rooting being transported up for another 3 years. Delays, of course, were a way of life in the Northern Territory, and in the end it was to be thirteen years from the drawing board stage to the opening. During that time, seven other hospitals in the outback had been completed.

However, the finished article was a beauty; a splendid building with two wards, high ceilings, an outside toilet and its own patent form of air-conditioning, an unknown luxury at the time, certainly in such a remote area. The idea behind this indulgence was that air entered the cellar via a two metre high tunnel. Sacking was hung outside the inlet, wetted and a fan just inside pushed the air through the passages into each room and out through the lantern roof. Thick walls and wide verandahs helped. It was clever, effective and provided filtered air as a bonus. The building was a marvel of ingenuity as well as being functional and providing a long felt need.

When eventually opened there was no doctor nearer than Darwin or Port Augusta, hundreds of kilometres away, and the sisters used telegrams as a means of medical communication. The first operation took place in late 1926. It was done by a doctor on holiday who removed a very large cyst from the neck of an aboriginal. This man was the only in-patient that year.

The second procedure a year later involved the sewing back of a skin flap to the skull. It had been sliced during a fight, then tucked under the man’s hat while he walked 5 kms to the hospital. Before the necessary sixteen sutures could be inserted, two hours were spent picking out bone splinters. The patient never looked back.

Lack of communication in the outback had been the problem initially, but out of adversity came a solution. World War I brought in its aftermath the radio and aircraft. They were adapted for use in the harsh area, especially with the aid of the redoubtable Alf Traegar, and provided a vital link.

Late in 1926. Flynn and Traegar set up a two way radio run by a 32 volt house lighting plant. Heavy batteries, of course, had to be humped up, so it was with some relief that in 1929 invention of the pedal radio made things simpler. The primitive radios are on view at the hospital today. The train reached the Alice in 1929. This led to what was by local standards a population explosion. It also allowed serious cases in need of more specialised care to be transported out. In the end, Flynn established fourteen hospitals, all in remote areas where there were no other medical facilities available: none had the blood, sweat and tears lavished on it as did Adelaide House.

Today can be seen the pitifully small wards, one for men and an even smaller one for women. One bathroom served both. They are off a central hall on the other side of which is the kitchen, nurses living room and their two bedrooms. The wards doubled as operating theatre and delivery suite.

It has long since been supersede, of course, but the building is still there and can be seen in all its restored glory in down town Alice. It has been rightly rated as one of the country’s top ten heritage buildings.

Within this building was acted out the joys and tragedies of some of the most hardy and self sufficient people in the world. Looking back on those early difficulties with the harshness of the climate, the tyranny of distance, the professional isolation, the lack of raw materials, the bureaucratic indifference, and remembering the vision of the builder and the dedication of his resourceful staff, it is little wonder that the tiny, simple place touched me in a way it did.


Bucknall G. Flynn’s Mantle of Safety, Published by the Author 1982.