The Guild has selected the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundationas the recipient of our charitable donations for 2022-2023.

A network of nonprofit hospitals in Ethiopia created by Dr. Hamlin and her husband, Reginald Hamlin, has treated more than 60,000 Ethiopian women for obstetric fistulas over the past 61 years, according to the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation. Despite Catherine’s death on March 18, 2020, at the age of 96, that work continues.

The Life and Work of Catherine (and Reginald) Hamlin

Elinor Catherine Nicholson, one of six children, was born Jan. 24, 1924, in Sydney. After boarding school, she earned a medical degree at the University of Sydney in 1946. A lecture by a missionary inspired her to find a Christian mission for her medical work. She met Reginald Hamlin at a Sydney women’s hospital, where he was the medical superintendent. He was 15 years older. They married when she was 26.

The Hamlins worked as gynecologists and obstetricians in Britain, Hong Kong and Australia before noticing an advertisement seeking someone to set up a school of midwifery in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. They arrived in 1959, expecting to remain a few years. But their work, which shifted to a focus on treating fistulas, became a lifetime mission for both.

“I believe that Reg and I were guided here by God,” she wrote.

The transition was rough. Nights brought the howls of hyenas. Dr. Hamlin described them as “unattractive animals” but added that they were good at removing rubbish. The Hamlins drove a secondhand Volkswagen Beetle and spent much of their time tangling with local bureaucrats.

To learn surgical techniques for fistulas, they wrote to an Egyptian obstetrician and sought advice from other authorities in England and Germany. They also developed their own surgical techniques and taught them to other doctors in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

Hearing of cures, women traveled hundreds of miles, sometimes on foot, to their hospital. “What a tragic sight they were,” Dr. Hamlin wrote. “Offensive to smell, dressed in rags, often completely destitute.” After being cured, one woman wanted to kiss the Hamlins’ feet.

They befriended and admired the Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie. After he was deposed in 1974, the Hamlins endured a long period of violence and political turmoil. Their strategy was to keep a low profile.

“I am sure we were left alone because we were a completely free hospital,” she wrote. “As Reg used to say, we were true socialists.”

Regular fundraising trips overseas allowed them to build larger and better facilities.

“We were always scrounging for money to keep everything going,” she recalled. Donors included World Vision Canada and Rotary clubs.

When Reg Hamlin died of cancer in 1993, Catherine Hamlin was tempted to retire. She said the hospital gardener took her hand and pleaded: “Don’t leave us; we’ll all help you.” She stayed for the rest of her life and died at her home in Addis Ababa.

Among many other honors, she was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1995. The Ethiopian government presented her with the Eminent Citizen Award last year.

Her survivors include a son and four grandchildren. 

“To say Catherine was a remarkable woman is an understatement,” the Hamlin foundation said in a statement announcing her death. “In our eyes, she is a saint.”

Her 2001 memoir is titled “The Hospital by the River.”

By James R. Hagerty, March 27, 2020, The Wall Street Journal (edited).