The University of Sydney is saddened by the passing of one of its most distinguished alumna, Dr Catherine Hamlin AC (MBBS ’46 MD ’05). A gynaecologist and humanitarian, Dr Hamlin spent most of her life in Ethiopia revolutionising the care of a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula. Her dedication and work in curing and caring for her patients have affected and saved thousands.
Reflecting on Dr Hamlin’s incredible medical and humanitarian contributions, Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence has said, "During the current coronavirus crisis the community is acutely aware of the sacrifices our health workers are making to benefit the wider community. Dr Hamlin exemplifies that spirit - she selflessly dedicated most of her life to easing the suffering of hundreds of thousands of women. We are tremendously proud to call her an alumna."
Born and raised in Sydney, Dr Catherine Hamlin AC graduated as doctor from the University of Sydney in 1946. She credited the University for as being the starting step of her journey to Ethiopia.
“It prompted my desire, and my conviction, that someday I would help others in this world. It was my time at Sydney University that completely set the course of my life to spend more than half a century in Ethiopia.”
After graduating, and several internships, she became a resident in obstetrics at Crown Street Women’s hospital, where she was the only female resident. It was at Crown Street Hospital where she would meet her husband-to-be, Reginald Hamlin, who was medical superintendent. They were married in 1950.
In 1958 they answered an ad in The Lancet to set up a midwifery school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It was here in Addis Ababa that Dr Hamlin found her true calling and what originally planned as a three-year stay soon turned into a lifetime of service. The Hamlin’s work would go on to help over 60,000 Ethiopian women suffering from a childbirth injury called obstetric fistula.
Occurring when the baby gets stuck in the birth canal, obstetric fistula can result in an agonising labour, infant death and incontinence for the mother, who are then stigmatised by their families and communities.
After working to develop their own surgical technique to repair these injuries, the Hamlin’s established the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1975. This hospital proceeded to train generations of doctors, and the Hamlin’s would eventually expand to six Hamlin Fistula hospitals across Ethiopia.
In recognition of her outstanding contributions Dr Hamlin was awarded a Doctor of Medicine (honoris causa) from the University in 2005 and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, first in 1999 and then again in 2014.
Despite the accolades, Dr Hamlin’s dedication to her work was unfailing. Shortly after her second Nobel Peace Prize nomination, at age 90, she reflected on her commitment to her work in an interview with the Sydney Alumni Magazine.
“I know I haven’t many years left ahead but I have no plans to retire. I still work six days a week. I could never imagine just living here and not working. Reg and I came to Ethiopia motivated to help people and the work we started together is not finished. It is this work that keeps my heart going, and my life going.”
Dr Hamlin’s contributions have been widely recognised by her peers and the University of Sydney Community. Professor Robert Cumming from the School of Public Health described Dr Hamlin as, “one of the greats of Australian medicine. In the field of global health, only Fred Hollows comes close.”
Dr Hamlin sadly passed away on 18 March 2020, at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia, her home for the last 61 years.