Photo: Bruce Perry
Today we honor the life and work of Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician, and gynecologist who co-founded the world’s only medical center exclusively providing free obstetric fistula repair surgery to women.
Born in Sydney
Dr. Catherine Hamlin, was born as Elinor Catherine Nicolson, in Sydney, Australia on January 24, 1924. Her parents, Elinor and Theodore Nicolson had 5 other children!
Catherine went on to study medicine at the University of Sydney and graduated in 1946. She became a resident in obstetrics at Crown Street Women’s Hospital. Catherine was actually interviewed by Dr. Reginald Hamlin, the superintendent at Crown Street Women’s Hospital, who later became her husband. They married in 1950.
In 1958, the Hamlins noticed an advertisement from the Ethiopian government looking for humanitarian work from an obstetrician and gynecologist at the Princess Tsehay Hospital in Addis Ababa. They decided to take up the offer and stay for only three years in Ethiopia. Just a year later, the Hamlins would witness their first obstetric fistula, which at the time was considered a rarity.
An obstetric fistula is a medical condition where a hole develops in the birth canal as a result of childbirth. This condition can occur when the mother is having prolonged and obstructed labor without medical aid. In modern countries, obstetric fistulas decreased more as medical treatment and knowledge advanced for labor and delivery, specifically the use of cesarean section.
It became clear very quickly that with each case they’d see, this was a serious problem in Ethiopia, and that something needed to be done about it.
The Fistula Hospital
Fifteen years after their first encounter with the obstetrical fistula, the Hamlins opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974. In the interim, they refined their surgical techniques on obstetric fistula cases and even started developing a good reputation in the local community. The hospital eventually went on to treat more than 60,000 patients.
- In 2002, Desta Mender, Joy Village in Amaric, was built on land donated by the Ethiopian Government. This village consisted of 10 houses for patients living with long-term injuries to live in during their treatment. Nowadays, this village also gives women a stepping stone to start developing skills to find work within their community.
- By 2003, it was growing clear the need for treatment of these fistulas, as women further from the hospital were struggling to make a visit for a cure of their own. To help alleviate this issue, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital began building five regional hospitals. “There are now hospitals in Mekele and Bahir Dar in the north, Yirgalem in the south, Harar in the east and Metu in the southwest,” according to the Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia website.
- Since 2007, the hospital has worked on ensuring prevention of childbirth injuries and had 170 midwives graduate from their Hamlin College of Midwives.
The Final Years
Catherine and Reginald continuously stayed involved with the hospital over the years. In 1993, Reginald passed away. Catherine continued to work every day and lived in her cottage at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital until the day she passed. On March 18, 2020, Dr. Catherine Hamlin passed at age 96.
She has been awarded and recognized greatly over the years for distinguished service towards gynecology and obstetrics. On January 26, 1995 she was awarded Australia’s highest honor by being promoted to Companion of the Order of Australia, an order of chivalry that was established in 1975 by Queen Elizabeth II. She has received many other awards and distinguishes, but here are just a few:
- January 2001: She was awarded Centenary Medal for “long and outstanding service to the International Development in Africa.
- In 2001: Catherine published a best-selling book called The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope. It recalls the life of her and her husband’s journey to their lives work for women in Ethiopia.
- January 2004: Catherine appeared on the Oprah Winfrey TV show at age 80, to talk about her work and mission. Winfrey even traveled to the hospital to film a second episode on Hamlin’s work.
- In 2007: A documentary called A Walk to Beautiful feature five Ethiopian women who were treated and cured by Hamlin and her Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital team was released.
- In 2009: She received the Right Livelihood Award, which is considered the alternative to the Nobel Prize.
Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s dream continues to live on. Today, the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital is now called the Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia. It has a network of over 500 Ethiopian staff across 6 hospitals. The hospital and it’s organization remains to be the leader of fighting to completely rid of obstetric fistulas across the world.
“My dream is to eradicate [the] obstetric fistula. Forever. I won’t do this in my lifetime, but you can in yours.”
~ Dr. Catherine Hamlin