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Obituary: Catherine Hamlin

A Tribute to Dr Catherine Hamlin, Fellow ad eundeum at the RCOG Council on Friday 10th July 2020

Read by Prof Dilly Anumba FRCOG, RCOG Council International Representative for Sub-Sahara Africa:

Catherine Hamlin was born Elinor Catherine Nicholson on 24 January 1924 in Sydney Australia where she studied medicine, specialising in Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

As a junior doctor she met and married Reg, also an Obstetrician/Gynaecologist but some years her senior. They were both deeply committed Christians. After marrying and moving to Adelaide's Queen Victoria Hospital for some years, the couple saw an advertisement to establish a midwifery school in Ethiopia in 1959. They took up a subsequent offer there and moved to Addis Ababa in 1959 to teach Midwifery at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital for a few months at a hiatus in Reg’s career.

In a country with limited resources, Reg and Catherine soon established a busy clinical practice looking after the very poor with complex problems but also delivering the Ethiopian Royal family children and aristocracy, becoming personal friends with many.

It was during this time that they came to learn about one of the scourges of African obstetrics – ischaemic vesicovaginal fistula, from prolonged obstructed labour, a deeply embarrassing birthing injury virtually unknown in the developed world. Ostracised, shunned and alone, affected women are refused entry onto public transport and not allowed into hospitals to receive treatment. Reg and Catherine then made it their life’s work to treat this condition. Catherine initially set up a hostel for them. They subsequently acquired some land on a hillside on the outskirts of Addis and entirely from public donation, built a hospital for the treatment of fistula, treating thousands of women through tumultuous political times in Ethiopia. The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, subsequently named the Hamlin Fistula Hospital has now treated the fistula injuries of more than 50,000 women.

They had medical tourists from all over the world to learn to repair obstetric fistulas but they prioritised training doctors from deprived areas where the problem was prevalent. The massive case load was such that she even trained her nursing aids to first start completing operations and subsequently performing them with great dexterity and a high cure rate.

When her husband Reg died in 1993 Catherine ran the hospital continuing to operate well into her eighties but also employed expert surgeons to carry on the complex fistula surgery.

Catherine was a consummate fund raiser for her course. Her charming and gentle manner and excellent English made her an expert negotiator with government officials and funding bodies. She gained funds not only to run the hospital but to open a midwifery school for villagers in rural Ethiopia so they could return and join a program to prevent fistula. She described herself as a professional beggar, an accolade which many of us would be jealous to have even today if we could achieve some modest degree of success in such fundraising activities. In 2004, Catherine Hamlin appeared on the Opra Winfrey show to talk about her life’s work in Ethiopia. Opra had initially been reluctant to do the interview but was so captivated by Catherine that she devoted the whole show to her and wrote her a personal cheque of nearly half a million dollars, along with the spontaneous donations made by the studio staff and audience. Opra’s donation built a clinical investigation unit and library which bears her name today. Her village for recovered obstetric fistula patients was aptly named, Desta Menda - village of joy.

Catherine summed up her life’s work in a book ‘The Hospital by the River’ (2001) which she co-wrote with John Little who subsequently described her in his own book written in 2008 as a "marvel" and quoted The New York Times which wrote "Dr Hamlin is the new Mother Teresa of our age."

Indeed, Catherine remained a regular visitor to the wards of her hospital well into her 90s. Her dream that the fistula hospital would one day not be necessary and could be replaced by a maternity hospital is slowly becoming a reality and with that her legacy will be to have created a hospital to look after the women of Ethiopia.

In addition to Fellowship ad eundeum of the RCOG she received numerous awards and prizes in recognition of her services to Women’s Health.

  • She was introduced to the Queen and her husband Reg (deceased 1993) was awarded the OBE in the British Embassy in Addis by the Queen during her state visit there in 1965.
  • She was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 1983 for her services to gynaecology in developing countries, and in 1995 was promoted to the grade of Companion of the Order of Australia.
  • Dr Hamlin was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999, and again in 2014. Had she won the prize, she would have undoubtedly ploughed such an award into her course of improving the lot of women affected by obstetric fistula.
  • In February 2015, Hamlin received a visit by fellow Australian, Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, at the hospital where she lived.

She had one son Richard and 4 grandchildren Sarah, Paul, Catherine and Stephanie. She died of old age on 18. March 2020 aged 96 years. We remember Dr Catherine Hamlin’s lifelong work for Africa’s under-privileged women today.