Sunday History Photo / WA

Submitted: Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 08:28
ThreadID: 133323 Views:5974 Replies:5 FollowUps:1
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Robin Miller was a lauded West Australian pilot and Royal Flying Doctor Service flight nurse who brought modern medicine to north-western Australia while breaking down barriers for women in aviation.
Although the polio vaccine had first become available in 1955, by 1967 many West Australians were still vulnerable. Most in the cities had been immunised, but not in the remote areas, and certainly not the Aborigines.

It was at this time that a recently graduated nurse who also had a commercial pilot's licence proposed a radical plan. She suggested to the health department that she go out into the remote areas and give them the immunisation.. She would drip the vaccine, the Sabin, onto a sugarcube, and the Aborigines gave her the nickname the sugar bird lady because they got the sugar cubes and she came in from the sky.
A young nurse flying solo to the remotest parts of Western Australia's Pilbara and Kimberley regions in the 1960s was as extraordinary as it sounds. But Robin Miller was not a typical young nurse. Ms Miller and Ms Millett were daughters of Mary Durack, author of Australian literary classic, Kings in Grass Castles.

Robin Miller graduated from nursing with a university medal and obtained her commercial pilot's licence before becoming widely known as a Royal Flying Doctor Service nurse delivering polio vaccines to north western Australia.
When the girls were born the family still held the Kimberley sheep and cattle stations that had made them a part of West Australian history. They had a huge pastoral empire up there until 1950 of about seven million acres, and so there was already a very, very strong connection to the north and the Aborigines, that was in their family,
Mary Durack was married to Captain Horrie Miller, the founder of Macrobertson Miller Airlines, Western Australia's seminal domestic carrier, this pioneer of West Australian aviation passed on his love for the air to his daughter Robin. Robin thought it was absolutely wonderful, and so from very little she had the experience of flying with her dad.

But when Robin finished high school in Perth, flying was not considered to be an appropriate career for a woman, she thought she'd better do something sensible like nursing, she had absolutely no hope of ever flying an aeroplane, but as well as graduating from nursing with the state nurses' medical prize, with the help of her father, Robin had also acquired her private pilot licence. Her future husband Dr Harold Dicks, president of the RFDS, encouraged her to get her commercial pilot's licence. But even then in 1966 to be a female commercial pilot still came with inherent expectations about a woman's ability to fly.

She did eventually apply for a commercial job with MMA, and even though her father was the founding director, she was refused that job, But her nursing abilities combined with the fact that her father could provide the plane, meant that Robin's aviation career took off with her proposal to distribute the polio vaccine in north-western Australia. She made them an offer they couldn't refuse. She administered 37,000 doses of the oral vaccine, mostly to the Aboriginal communities, and she covered 43,000 air miles.

The combination of a glamorous young woman and a life of adventure brought Robin a lot of attention. She wanted to be definitely feminine in the flying world, even though she did a lot of heavy work, she pushed planes in and out, and did her own mechanical work and so on. But she was good-looking and very, very charming to meet. She became extremely well-known throughout the north at this time, also for administering treatment for the eye diseases and trachoma,
Throughout the late 60s and early 70s, Robin Miller was constantly in the air, whether she was bringing new planes back to Australia, a solo flight from Paris to Perth, competing in transcontinental women's air race the Powder Puff Derby or working for the RFDS across the Kimberley and Pilbara.

Aircraft registered VH-REM (REM stood for Robin Elizabeth Miller) Mooney M.20E Super 21 (construction number: 424). Built in 1964, and registered in the USA as N6681R, before delivery to Australia
She kept detailed diaries which, along with her nurses costume are in the national library in Canberra. Those diaries were the foundation for Robin's books Sugarbird Lady and Flying Nurse.
But while her notoriety as a pioneering female aviator was still growing, Robin discovered a malignant melanoma on her leg which was promptly surgically removed.

Robin said, 'If they've got it all then I'll be alright, but if they haven't, 'then I've got about two years. And that was precisely right. She knew she was flying on borrowed time. After achieving so much in providing health services to remote northern Australia and changing attitudes towards women in aviation and Australian society, She combined a life of adventure and humanity with 1960s style and glamour, before her life was cut short.
Robin Miller was buried in the Broome cemetery at the age of 35.
She gave her life to the service of others.

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Reply By: Member - Tony H (touring oz) - Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 08:54

Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 08:54
Thanks Doug,
Love these sort of stories.....wonder what she would have gone to do if that bloody big 'C' hadn't of got her?
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Reply By: Member - Bigred13 - Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 10:40

Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 10:40
Thanks Doug T ,another great story of an Australian legend ,well put together ,you must spend hours getting all these facts together ,so we can enjoy them ,I hope someone writes your story one day and I am around to read it .???????? Thanks John
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Reply By: Member - ACD 1 - Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 11:17

Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 11:17
Again, another superb taste of Australian History.

I particularly love it when I have some kind of personal connection to the story i.e. either I've been to the place, know of the person, place or object being discussed or the like.

I knew f the connection between Horrie Miller, MMA and Horrie Miller Drive at the Perth airport, but never realised their was a connection with the Duracks.

Thanks again Doug


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Follow Up By: Frank P (NSW) - Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 11:41

Sunday, Aug 28, 2016 at 11:41
Likewise, Anthony.

I spoke with Robyn many times in the late 60's/early 70's in my time as an air traffic controller at Jandakot and Perth and met her at a few hangar parties.

Thanks for your story, Doug. It joins a few dots for me too.Well done.


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Reply By: Phil B (WA) - Monday, Aug 29, 2016 at 09:41

Monday, Aug 29, 2016 at 09:41
Thanks Doug - as others have said great detail on a great story. I also didn't know the Durack connection.
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Reply By: Member - Trevor_H - Monday, Aug 29, 2016 at 21:47

Monday, Aug 29, 2016 at 21:47
Thanks Doug. I was fortunate to have known Robin Miller as I was apprenticed to the WA Section of the RFDS. I worked on VH-REM and, earlier, a Cessna 182 that she also flew. Dr Harold Dicks is the coatless man in the first photo in front of the First Beech Baron they flew from America. I still have fond memories of times on the Swan crewing Dr Dicks's H28 with Robin. She was indeed, a wonderful person.
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