Flynn, John Joseph Witton

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BA 1916 MB ChM 1924

For 23 years Sydney Medical School taught the brothers Flynn. All six had graduated by 1934, together creating a record at that time at the University and the Empire for the largest number of men from one family to graduate in the faculty.

John Joseph Witton Flynn (BA 1916; MB ChM 1924 - dermatologist) was born into a family of 11, and named after his Irish medical practitioner father Dr John Joseph Flynn and mother Maud May Witton of Bombala. His father had been educated at Dublin University, and practiced at Bairnsdale Hospital where first son Michael Richard (BA 1914; BSc 1916; MB ChM 1920; MD 1931 - surgeon) was born in 1893.

A year later the family moved to Sydney, and in 1894 his father commenced practice at Lewisham Hospital. They lived in Newtown Road (now City Road) opposite the University, where for many years his father served as Demonstrator of Anatomy, then Demonstrator in Operative Surgery.

John Joseph Witton Flynn was born in 1895. Seven siblings followed: in 1899 James Aloysius Foedus (MB ChM 1922 - ophthalmic surgeon), in 1901 Leopold Rupert (MB ChM 1924 - consultant physician), then a sister Florence M in 1905. By 1906 the family resided at 42 College Street Sydney opposite the War Memorial, where Francis Stanislaus (MB BS 1930; MD 1981 - ophthalmic surgeon, missionary priest, author) was born. He was followed in 1909 by Aileen M J (Brigidine nun professed 1933), and in 1911 Gregory Stephen (MB BS 1935 - ophthalmic surgeon). The same year the family moved into a newly completed home Baltard at 38 Martin Road, in the then new suburb of Centennial Park. The following year their last child Catherine (Kathleen) (Brigidine nun professed 1937) was born.

The Flynn sons were educated at Marist Brothers’ School in Darlinghurst and grew up in a highly social, Catholic, medical environment. Like his brothers, John Joseph Witton Flynn was deeply engaged with University life at all levels. He was a member of the Sydney University Scouts for three years and a Senior Cadet before World War I interrupted his studies after graduating in Arts in 1916. He joined the AIF as a private, as a sergeant proceeded to France on board HMAT A68 Anchises in June 1917, and was promoted to lieutenant one month later.

He served with the 30th Battalion, 13th Reinforcement on the Western Front until 1918. Flynn’s WWI service record stands at 69 pages, and details his wounds in action in August 1918, and his admittance to hospital in Rouen after sustaining a gunshot wound to the head. Soon after being admitted he lost his left eye, and was invalided to the 3rd London General Hospital Wandsworth for a further 2 months. On his release he was posted for duty with AIF Departments in the UK.

In 1919 John Joseph Witton Flynn was awarded a Military Cross for his actions capturing Foucacourt which left him partially blind:

During the operations on 26th-28th August 1918, a hidden machine gun was holding up his company. He moved forward with a runner, located the gun, and, sending back the runner with a full report, rushed, the gun alone, capturing it and killing the crew. Later he took command of his company when all the other officers had become casualties, and led it successfully to its objective, displaying great gallantry throughout the day. (Commonwealth Gazette No. 67, 3 June 1919)

On his return to Australia, he chose to enter Medicine in 1920. An ambitious desire indeed considering his visual disability, and the fact that he was already a degreed war veteran at 25.

As well as dedicating himself to his medical studies, Flynn was involved with numerous student activities and took on leadership roles as Treasurer of the Undergraduates’ Association (1920), Vice-President (1921), President (1922), and Vice-President (1923). In the same year he served as Vice-President of The Medical Society, and the Union Board 1922-23. He was also a member of the Special Advisory Committee to the Senate.

A keen sportsman, he took an active part in the Sports Union Committee (1919-21), served as President of the Hockey Club (1919), and Vice-President (1920-21). He was a hockey blue three times in 1915, 1919 and 1920. Flynn also excelled at boxing, and the Mr John Witton Flynn Trophy is still awarded annually by Sydney University Sport and Fitness to the best novice boxer.

His Senior Year Book entry of 1923 depicts a bespectacled, bow-tied student with black hair and brown eyes, described by students as:

Perhaps the most outstanding man of the year, and is a genial soul despite his burden of honours. He has a fatal gift for remembering Latin phrases and hurling them at his defenceless hearers. His popularity is evidenced by the fact that we selected him our leader in 1921, and the undergrads endorsed our opinion a year later.

Throughout his years as a medical student, Flynn had been courting Mary Amelia Bridge, who he’d met soon after the war ended at a beach cottage party in Cronulla. In 1924 when he graduated Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery, the couple married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. In the same year he was appointed Resident Medical Officer to Sydney Hospital, and moved to London to study dermatology. In 1925 he was awarded the prestigious Chesterfield Medal for Dermatology at St John’s Hospital for Skin Diseases in London.

Returning to Australia in 1925, Flynn began a dermatology practice in Macquarie Street and started working at Lewisham Hospital, which he believed was his long-time ‘spiritual home.’ He was said to enjoy his outpatient clinic and the visits of his lively post-graduate students whom he encouraged to specialise in dermatology as well as other medical fields. Flynn was very fond of the nuns there.

The couple lived in Bellevue Hill and had one child Susan Mary Witton Flynn (BA 1950; Dip Soc Stud 1959 - solicitor).

War loomed again in 1939, and after its outbreak Flynn was appointed part-time specialist and consultant dermatologist to the RAAF, and captain. Between 1943-45 he served in Darwin, then New Guinea, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands.

The ever-increasing and relatively new dermatological problems during the late war in New Guinea and the tropics generally urged him to seek out vigorously the fundamental causes first hand…he gave some whole-time tropical service to the RAAF and contributed greatly to the reduction and control of skin conditions. His forthright opinions and advice were eagerly sought and highly valued by the Medical Directorate and medical officers generally. (Air Vice-Marshal E A Daley, 1956)

During the war he was also appointed an executive member of the St John Ambulance Association.

When the war ended he became a Serving Brother of the Order of Saint John, and continued his involvement in leadership positions within the Dermatological Association of Australia, and the British Association of Dermatology (NSW Branch). He also served as a lecturer in dermatology for the Post-Graduate Committee in Medicine of the University.

Flynn was said to be very social with a lively, passionate personality and a great range of friends. He bowled at the Royal Sydney Golf Club, and was a member of the Australian Jockey Club, owning at least one successful racehorse. Flynn went to the races in Randwick and Rosehill every Saturday, and travelled to Melbourne for the Cox Plate. He said it was a great way of attracting patients.

A dedicated member of the Medical Board of NSW from 1944, he was its President from 1953 until his death in 1955 in Bellevue Hill.

The death of Dr J J Witton Flynn is mourned by his many friends and colleagues and removes a colourful character from the profession, and one who gave vigorously of himself and his knowledge in the service of his country in two world wars. (Air Vice-Marshal E A Daley, Obituary, Australian Medical Journal, 1956).

The brothers Flynn each went on to become distinguished medical practitioners in their respective fields. Interestingly, after John Joseph Witton had his eye removed in 1918, three of his six brothers chose to specialise in the branch of medicine that deals with the physiology, anatomy and diseases of the eye. Arguably his most famous brother ‘Father Frank’ was honoured with the Order of Australia in 1993 in recognition of his services to Aboriginal eye health, and described by Professor Fred Hollows as his mentor and ‘the man behind his fight for sight.’

Citation: Witton, Vanessa (2012) Flynn, John Joseph Witton. Faculty of Medicine Online Museum and Archive, University of Sydney