After graduating in medicine at the University of Sydney and doing her internship, she decided to specialise, although she wasn't sure in what subject. This was decided for her when she heard of an opening at the Crown Street Women's Hospital.
She arranged an interview with the medical superintendent, Dr Reg Hamlin, a New Zealander and World War II veteran, 15 years her senior. She got the job, and the two doctors fell in love and married in 1950.
They decided to travel and worked in London and Hong Kong, then came back to Australia in time to see the 1958 advertisement in a medical magazine asking for a gynaecologist to set up a school of midwifery for nurses at the Princess Tsehai hospital in Addis Ababa. The Hamlins got the jobs, doubted that they wanted to go with their five-year-old son, but got on the plane anyway, convinced that God wanted them to do this.
They were stationed at the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital, named after the Emperor Haile Selassie's daughter who died in childbirth in 1942. It was a general care hospital, but the Hamlins soon found themselves doing a great deal of fistula repair along with their regular obstetrics. As word of their cures spread, suffering women, shunned in their home villages, walked, sometimes hundreds of kilometres, crawled or were carried into the hospital, hoping for help.
Even as the numbers of "fistula pilgrims", as the Hamlins called them, increased, almost overwhelming the hospital and sleeping on storage room floors and in stairwells if necessary, Reg Hamlin would drive around the town, to the bus station and camps, to gather more in. The Hamlins never turned away a woman in need and, indeed, often paid the hospital charges themselves if necessary.
Eventually, in 1962, the Hamlins opened a separate 10-bed hostel for the pilgrims in the Memorial Hospital's grounds, but even this proved inadequate, and they started to plan, and then build, a full, independent, Fistula Hospital on nearby land, using overseas donations, mainly from New Zealand and Australia.
After their years of work, medical, administrative and fundraising, the Fistula Hospital was due to be opened in 1974 by the emperor, a strong supporter of the Hamlins, but fate intervened. There was a coup in 1974, the emperor was arrested, and later found dead in his cell, and many of the Hamlins' Ethiopian friends were killed or disappeared. The country was ruled for 17 years by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam and was a time of war, revolution, enforced communism and famines. Despite all this, the Hamlins managed to keep working, and even holding small Bible classes, disguising them as literacy lessons.
The hospital was opened, by Reg cutting a ribbon between two chairs one day. The Hamlins often scrounged and connived for supplies, as everything medical was supposed to go to the army, and continued to use their holiday time travelling for fundraising.
Medical staff also came from all over the world to be trained in the hospital, and medical staff started driving out into the countryside, asking at villages for any incontinent women, who were then taken back to the hospital for treatment.
The Hamlins trained many local people to work in the hospital as well. One was Mamitu Gashe, who came to the hospital as a 16-year-old village girl, carried for three days on a makeshift stretcher by her father and uncle, semi-conscious with infection after a failed delivery, to a town where she could get a bus to Addis Ababa. Her husband deserted her and she stayed on at the hospital to become an expert fistula surgeon.
Then in 1991, Reg Hamlin was diagnosed with a malignant fibrosarcoma growing in his thigh muscle. It was removed but came back and radiation treatment in England didn't help so he returned to Ethiopia. He continued his work as long as possible but finally died in 1993.
Catherine Hamlin was devastated and seriously considered giving up the hospital work and returning to Australia. Catherine’s strength and passion to offer free fistula surgery wavered only once in her lifetime, following the death of her beloved Reg in 1993. Days after his funeral, Catherine felt overwhelming fear at the prospect of running the hospital by herself.
In this moment of grief, her long-time gardener Birru knelt by her chair, “He took my hand in his, kissed the back of it and said, ‘Don’t leave us; we’ll all help you.’” A deeply religious woman, Catherine felt these words were an enormous blessing and from that moment knew that she would be “quite alright.” She took over Reg Hamlin's administration and fundraising work, despite disliking public speaking, which she had always left to him, as well as continuing to care for patients.
Towards the middle of the 1990s, though, the hospital was again too small, with patients sleeping two to a bed and anywhere else they could fit. So Hamlin prayed and buckled down again and got the Australian architect Ridley Smith, also from a missionary family, to voluntarily design the new buildings with Ethiopian architect Joseph Berada, and persuaded AusAid to put up the money. The new hospital, increased from 40 beds to 300 beds, was officially opened in January 1999 and continues its work, doing more than 1000 operations a year.
Over the years, there were many honours for both doctors. In 1965, Reg Hamlin was awarded an OBE, and was delighted to have it conferred by the Queen on her visit to Ethiopia that year. In 1989 he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal College of Surgeons.
In 1983, Catherine Hamlin was made a Member of the Order of Australia, and in 1995, was promoted to Companion of the Order of Australia. In 1998 she received the Rotary International Award for World Understanding, which came with a useful $US100,000 in prize money. In 2001 she was awarded the Australian Centenary Medal and in 2004 she was named a National Living Treasure of Australia.
Then in 2004, Catherine was profiled internationally on the Oprah Winfrey Show giving the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital the kind of worldwide publicity that the Hamlins could never have imagined.
She was twice, in 1999 and 2014, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She was an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Australian College of Educators and held honorary doctorates from around the world. She was also giving honorary Ethiopian Citizenship in 2012.
Catherine will be buried alongside her husband in the British War Graves Cemetery in Addis Ababa, her home for 61 years. At the 60th anniversary celebrations in 2019, Catherine said “I love Ethiopia and I have loved every day here. Ethiopia is my home.”
Catherine is survived by her only son Richard and his four adult children: Sarah, Paul, Catherine and Stephanie, her sister Ailsa Pottie and brothers Donald and Jock Nicholson.
Catherine Hamlin 1924–2020
Harriet is a community casual for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Tim Barlass is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald