Catherine Hamlin, 96, Dies; Pioneering Doctor Treated Childbirth Injury


Dr. Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician and gynecologist who devoted her life to treating Ethiopian women with a devastating childbearing injury and helped develop pioneering techniques to treat it, died on Wednesday at her home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. She was 96.

Her death was announced by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation in Sydney, Australia, an independent charity she co-founded.

Dr. Hamlin, responding to an advertisement, arrived in Ethiopia with her husband, Reginald Hamlin, also a physician, in 1959 to work as a gynecologist at a hospital in Addis Ababa. But what started as a planned three-year stint turned into a six-decade-long mission in which the two doctors worked closely with women who had a childbearing injury known as obstetric fistula.

The condition is caused when prolonged labor opens a hole in the birth canal, leaving many women incontinent. For Ethiopian women, the injury often led to their being rejected by their husbands and ostracized by their communities.

When Dr. Hamlin and her husband arrived in Ethiopia, there was little to no treatment available for such patients anywhere in the country. Poring through medical books, journals and drawings of operations by other experts, the two developed innovative surgical techniques that are still used in hospitals today.

“We started with small fistulas, which any gynecologist can fix without much training, and gradually tackled more difficult ones,” Dr. Hamlin said in an interview in 2013.

In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that more than two million young women lived with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

After performing surgery to repair injuries for many years in Ethiopian hospitals, Dr. Hamlin and her husband built the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in 1974 amid a Communist revolution there. They also established a network of clinics and hospitals throughout the country that has provided reconstructive surgery to more than 60,000 Ethiopian women, according to her foundation.

In 2014, Dr. Hamlin told The New York Times, “We’re trying to prevent these injuries and wake up the world.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization and a former health minister of Ethiopia, said on Twitter about her death: “You were the best of humanity & very special. We all must continue carrying your mission forward.”

Elinor Catherine Nicholson was born on Jan. 24, 1924, in Sydney. One of six children, she graduated from the University of Sydney School of Medicine in 1946. She met Reginald Hamlin while working as a resident in the Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Sydney.

Twice nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Catherine Hamlin won the Right Livelihood Award in 2009, an international honor given annually to those providing solutions to the most urgent problems facing humanity. In 2012, the government in Ethiopia awarded her honorary citizenship.

At her 90th birthday party in Addis Ababa, her son, Richard, referring to her patients, said: “Catherine has one son and 35,000 daughters.”

In addition to her son, Dr. Hamlin is survived by her sister, Ailsa Pottie; her brothers, Donald and Jock Nicholson; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1993.

Last year, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia dedicated a statue of her and her husband at the hospital they founded in Addis Ababa.

On Thursday, Mr. Abiy said, “Ethiopia lost a true gem who dedicated more than sixty years to restoring the dignity of thousands of women.”

At her birthday party, Dr. Hamlin spoke about the need to improve the world’s maternal care. “We have to eradicate Ethiopia of this awful thing that’s happening to women: suffering, untold suffering, in the countryside,” she said. “I leave this with you to do in the future, to carry on.”





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