Dr Timothy O'Leary (1925 – 1987)

The Flying Doctor

Born in Abbeydorney, County Kerry on the 3rd May 1925, Timothy Joseph O’Leary studied at the Christian Brothers' Belvedere College before enrolling in medicine at University College Dublin.  He graduate in 1949 with first-class honours degree of Medicine (MB BCh BAO) from the National University of Ireland was awarded prizes for Medicine and Surgery during his studies at the UCD School of Medicine.

In 1950 he trained as a surgical registrar at the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham, England. As ship’s surgeon in the City of Perth, he voyaged to India, where he worked in hospitals at Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). Staying in New South Wales, he worked as a clinical assistant chest physician at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and as a medical officer in the tuberculosis eradication section, Department of Health.

In 1952 Dr O'Leary moved to Australia, taking up employment with the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland Section) in 1953. He later recalled that colleagues in Sydney considered he had made an ‘impetuous, foolhardy and irresponsible decision’. On 10 September that year at St Columba’s Catholic Church, Charters Towers, he married his Irish fiancée Catherine Marion Burke, a hairdresser, who had arrived in Australia a week earlier. Tragically, later that year, his wife of only six weeks died in a RFDS plane crash. The pilot, Captain Martin Garrett, was also killed and O’Leary suffered head and internal injuries. 

In February 1958 O’Leary was appointed RFDS acting medical superintendent and was transferred temporarily to Brisbane. Deputy medical superintendent (1965-69) and medical superintendent (1969-76), he worked from Mount Isa (1966-69), Brisbane (1969-72), Cairns (1972-77) and Charleville (1977-80). Knowledgeable about aircraft, he obtained a private pilot’s licence in 1966. In the Queensland Society of Health’s Elkington oration for 1968 he described his experiences as a flying doctor.  He was awarded a CBE in 1960 in recognition of his clinical service.

Dr. O'Leary continued to work for the RFDS and cared for the people of Quensland's outback for 27 years. Dr O’Leary was awarded a diploma in aviation medicine in 1972; he was elected (1973) a founding fellow of the Royal Australian College of Medical Administrators. He retired from the RFDS in 1980 and entered private practice on the Gold Coast. In 1985 he was appointed a life member of the RFDS and was elected a councillor of the Queensland section. 

Known as ‘Dr Tim’, Dr O’Leary was a highly competent doctor, especially skilled in obstetrics. He empathised with his patients, who appreciated his sense of humour as well as his diligence in caring for them. Described as a voluble red-head with a fiery temper, Dr Tim was keen on horses and riding and at one time held an amateur jockey’s licence. Survived by his wife and their daughter and three sons, he died of chronic lymphatic leukaemia on 20 July 1987 at Runaway Bay and was buried in Allambie Garden of Memories cemetery, Nerang. Two memoirs, North and Aloft and Western Wings of Care, edited by John Pearn and Graham Anderson, were published in 1988.


Adapted from Barry Smithurst, Dr. Tim O'Leary C.B.E., the senior flying doctor in Queensland in 1969, Queensland 2012.