Australian obstetrician Dr Catherine Hamlin was born in Sydney on 24 January 1924, one of six children of Elinor and Theodore Nicholson. The family lived in the suburb of Ryde, at ‘The Hermitage’, built by John Blaxland in 1842. Catherine went to school at Frensham in Mittagong NSW, and in 1946 graduated from the University of Sydney Medical School.
After internships at St Joseph’s Hospital Auburn, and St George Hospital Kogarah, she became a resident in obstetrics at Crown Street Women’s Hospital. In 1950 she married Dr Reginald Hamlin, medical superintendent at Crown Street and in 1959 the couple accepted a contract with the Ethiopian Government to set up a midwifery school in Addis Ababa.
Dr Catherine Hamlin with patients. Image provided courtesy of World Vision Australia © 2008
What had been intended as a three-year stay in Addis Ababa turned into a lifetime of service. Soon after arriving in Ethiopia, the Hamlins were horrified by the many women arriving at the Princess Tsehai Hospital suffering the devastating effects of obstetric fistula caused by prolonged and obstructed childbirth.
If a young woman is unable to give birth because the baby is obstructed in some way, constant straining over days may result in a still birth and formation of a fistula or hole through which urine and sometimes faeces ooze. The woman’s husband usually abandons her and takes a new wife. Should the young woman return to her family, she will often live beside but apart from her parents for there is little water or rags to stem the constant flow of bodily waste and resulting stench. Before the Hamlins arrived in Addis Ababa the women who sought medical help at the Princess Tsehai Hospital were turned away because there was no cure for their terrible condition.
Although 5% of women world-wide experience obstructed labour, with the advent of better medical supervision obstetric fistulae in developed countries was all but eliminated by the end of the nineteenth century.
Confronted by this ‘new’ condition and with the Ethiopian Government having insufficient money to continue the training of midwives, the Hamlins set about developing a surgical technique to repair obstetric fistulae drawing on work pioneered by an American surgeon in the 1850s. The technique the Hamlins developed is successful in 93% of cases and means that the many young women they have treated are able to return to their villages and resume normal living.
As news of the Hamlins’ work spread, more and more women came to them for help. At first they built a fistula clinic in the grounds of the Princess Tsehai Hospital and then in 1975, amidst the communist revolution, they opened the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. Since then the Hospital has treated over 30,000 fistula patients. As many fistula sufferers live in remote inaccessible villages, the Hospital establishing a number of regional centres so that medical help is more accessible. The Hospital and its regional centres are now able to treat about 2,800 fistula sufferers per year. It is estimated that there are at least 60 000 untreated cases of obstetric fistulae in Ethiopia alone and possibly as many as 2 million cases world wide. The Hospital also trains doctors from developing countries where obstetric fistulae occur such as Kenya, the Congo and Bangladesh. The Hospital has recently opened a college to train midwives.
Dr Reg Hamlin OBE died in 1993 and Catherine Hamlin continues their work, serving as senior consultant in surgery at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and chairing the Board of Trustees. Among the many awards she has received are the ANZAC Peace Prize 1984 and in 1995 she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. Four years later she was among the nominees for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Contributed by Caroline Jones
Dr Catherine Hamlin with John Little The Hospital by the River: a story of hope, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2001
Would you like to help?
The Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital relies entirely on overseas donations to fund its important work as the Ethopian government does not have the resources. The Hamlin Fistula ® Relief and Aid Fund, a registered charity with tax deductibility status, is the Hospital’s authorised representative in Australia. To make a donation or find out more, visit www.fistulatrust.org. Additional information is also available from World Vision Australia.