Remembering Dr Catherine Hamlin, the gynaecologist named a 'National Living Treasure'

Remembering Dr Catherine Hamlin, the gynaecologist named a ‘National Living Treasure’

Australian gynaecologist and humanitarian Dr Catherine Hamlin has died at age 96, in her home of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

A gifted doctor, Hamlin is remembered for the lifetime she dedicated to caring for others and her commitment to eradicating obstetric fistulas, a horrific condition many Ethiopian women suffer in childbirth.

Obstetric fistulas is a condition virtually unknown in the West, that leaves women incontinent, caused by long, unrelieved, obstructed labour. Most survivors give birth to a still born baby, and are then rejected by their husbands and communities due to the humiliating nature of the condition.

Born in 1924 in Sydney, Hamlin grew up in Ryde as one of six children. She graduated from the University of Sydney’s Medical School in 1946 and completed two internships before applying for a job at Crown Street Women’s Hospital. It was there she met Dr Reg Hamlin, a World War II veteran who she married in 1950.

In 1958, Catherine and her husband, also trained in obstetrics and gynaecology, flew to Ethiopia with a plan to spend a few years working there in a government hospital. What had been intended as a three-year stay in Addis Ababa turned in to a lifetime of service to Ethiopia and the establishment of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, a network of clinics dedicated to giving free surgery to the women who need it.

Before the Hamlins arrived in Ethiopia, patients with obstetric fistulas who sought medical help were turned away as there was no cure for condition. The Hamlins also had limited knowledge about obstetric fistulas when they arrived, and drew on medical literature from the 1850s to develop their own surgical technique, which is still used today.

In 2007 she founded the Hamlin College of Midwives in Ethiopia. Today, more than 60,000 Ethiopian women have received treatment at one of the Hamlins’ six clinics, where more than 550 staff have been trained.

In 2020, Catherine celebrated her 61st year living in Ethiopia, where she was adored by her patients, staff and the Ethiopian people. She was often referred to as “Emaye”, meaning mother.

“Most of her 96 years were generously given to help the poor women of our county with traumatic birth injuries,” says Tesfaye Mano, Chief Executive Officer of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

“We are all thankful for Catherine’s lifelong dedication. We promise to continue her legacy and realise her dream to eradicate fistula for Ethiopia. Forever.”

In 1983, Hamlin was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia and 1995, she was appointed to a higher rank in the Order, a Companion. In 2001, she received the Australian Centenary Medal and was named a National Living Treasure of Australia in 2004.

She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and has been recognised by the United Nations as a pioneer in fistula surgery.

In 2019 the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed presented her with Eminent Citizen Award in recognition of her lifetime of service to the women of Ethiopia.

“When I die, this place will go on for many, many, years until we have eradicated fistula altogether – until every woman in Ethiopia is assured of a safe delivery and a live baby.” – Dr Catherine Hamlin. 

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