Catherine Hamlin
Dr Catherine Hamlin (cropped).jpg
Hamlin in 2009
Elinor Catherine Nicholson

(1924-01-24)24 January 1924
Died18 March 2020(2020-03-18) (aged 96)
AwardsRight Livelihood Award

Elinor Catherine Hamlin, AC, MBBS, FRCS, FRANZCOG, FRCOG (née Nicholson; 24 January 1924 – 18 March 2020) was an Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist who, with her husband, New Zealander Reginald Hamlin, co-founded the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, the world's only medical centre dedicated exclusively to providing free obstetric fistula repair surgery to poor women suffering from childbirth injuries.[1] They also co-founded an associated non-profit organisation, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

Hamlin has been recognised by the United Nations agency UNFPA as a pioneer in fistula surgery for her development of techniques and procedures for obstetric fistula treatment. The Hamlins, together with the hospital staff, have treated more than 60,000 women to date for obstetric fistula.[2] She died in Addis Ababa on 18 March 2020.[3]

Family and education

Elinor Catherine Nicholson was raised in the Sydney suburb of Ryde, at "The Hermitage" (built by John Blaxland in 1842). One of six children of Elinor and Theodore Nicholson, she went to Frensham School in Mittagong,[4] before attending the University of Sydney and graduating from its Medical School in 1946.[5]

After internships at St Joseph's Hospital, Auburn, and St George's 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.[4]

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

Three trainee midwives with Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in 2009

In 1958 the Hamlins answered an advertisement placed by the Ethiopian government in The Lancet medical journal for an obstetrician and gynaecologist to establish a midwifery school at the Princess Tsehay Hospital in Addis Ababa.[5] They arrived in 1959 with their six-year-old son, Richard.[6] The Hamlins had never seen an obstetric fistula before — they were an "academic rarity"[7] having been virtually eradicated in the United States in 1895. (The first fistula hospital closed its doors in New York City in 1925.)[7] Seeing many cases arrive at the school, they decided to create a dedicated hospital. Fifteen years later, in 1974, they founded Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital[8] and over the years, the hospital has treated more than 60,000 patients.[2]

Hamlin still lived in her cottage on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and remained very active in the day-to-day work of the hospital and patient care up until her death. Reg Hamlin was actively involved in the activities of the hospital and was a member of its Board of Trustees until his death in 1993.[8]


Hamlin meets The Queen at Government House, Canberra in 2011

Hamlin has been awarded honorary fellowships in the medical associations of Australia, England and the United States. On 26 January 1983, she was appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia for her services to gynaecology in developing countries[9] and on 26 January 1995, Hamlin was awarded Australia's highest honour, being promoted to the grade of Companion of the Order of Australia.[10]

On 1 January 2001, she was awarded the Centenary Medal for "long and outstanding service to international development in Africa".[11] She is the author of the best-selling book, The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope, first published in 2001. A second edition was published in 2016 with a foreword by Dame Quentin Bryce.[2] She has been described as a modern-day "Mother Teresa" in an editorial by Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.[12]

Aged 80, Hamlin appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show in January 2004. The episode was included in Winfrey's 20-year anthology collection. Winfrey travelled to the hospital and filmed another episode for her show, broadcast in December 2005. The 2007 documentary, "A Walk to Beautiful" featured five Ethiopian women who were treated and cured by Hamlin and her team at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.[13][14]

In 2009 she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, also called the "alternative Nobel Prize".[15][16]

Hamlin was among 50 prominent Australians invited by the Governor-General of Australia, Dame Quentin Bryce, to take lunch with Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at Government House, Canberra on 23 October 2011.[17]

In November 2016, a Sydney Ferries Emerald-class ferry was named Catherine Hamlin.[18]


The Sydney ferry Catherine Hamlin

Both Hamlin and her hospital received numerous awards.[8] Known for her dedication and humility, Hamlin said of the plaudits she received that "I'm doing what I love doing and it's not a hardship for me to be working in Ethiopia with these women".[19]