Whether caring for lepers or undertaking surgery while a nurse read instructions from a book, Dr Lawson Holman was a pioneering outback medico.

Story By Ricky French

Near the outskirts of the Kimberley town of Derby, at the start of the Gibb River Road, surrounded by boab trees and hidden in pindan woodlands, sits a timber and asbestos sheet house with a steeply pitched corrugated-iron roof. It is known simply as Holman House.

A long time ago it was a classic, grand Kimberley house, with a ventilation skirt and a verandah with louvres. Today it is derelict, the walls peppered with holes, a carpet of broken glass. The house has no neighbours. It was towed here on the back of a truck in the mid-1980s with high hopes of becoming a museum piece.

You won’t find Holman House on tourist brochures, but the house holds a special place in the hearts of the people of the Kimberley, because it was the former residence of the pioneering flying doctor Lawson Holman. Old Doc Holman, as he was affectionately known, died in 1993 at the age of 64, but is remembered in the Kimberley as a doctor like none other, with an extraordinary commitment to improving the health of remote communities.

Holman wasn’t the first flying doctor in the Kimberley, but his legacy is the most enduring. Arriving in Derby fresh out of medical school in 1956, he encountered a world far removed from anything he experienced during his studies in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. One of Holman’s first duties was to take part in the search for the plane wreckage containing the body of his predecessor.
Holman quickly realised the limitations of medicine in the bush. The conditions were primitive, even for the 1950s. For a start, there was no blood bank. Holman therefore categorised all Derby residents into blood groups. If blood of a particular group was needed fast, Holman would race over to the house of the (compulsory) donor and bleed them, sometimes on their front doorstep.

Surgery as we know it today didn’t exist. Holman had only rudimentary training, but was willing to improvise. Often the matron of the hospital would administer an anaesthetic to the patient while a nurse read out instructions from a surgery book to Holman as he operated. Holman eventually trained in surgery in Edinburgh, before returning to serve the people of the Kimberley, becoming the only surgeon north of Geraldton.

This story excerpt is from Issue #105

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2016