‘Cool’ aunt who cares

Saturday, 30th December, 2017

SECOND CHANCES IN THE THIRD WORLD – Dr Catherine Hamlin with patients in Ethiopia. Photo: Joni Kabana

AT just 10 years of age, Alison Morgan thought her aunt Catherine was the coolest person in the family. So she is understandably pleased to hear she’s not alone.

It was her admiration for her aunt, Dr Catherine Hamlin, forged as a girl, that convinced Alison she wanted to walk a similar path.

Now 56, Dr Morgan, head of the Maternal Sexual and Reproductive Health Unit at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, is thrilled her aunt has been named NSW Senior Australian of the Year.

Dr Morgan accepted the award on her aunt’s behalf in November.

Dr Hamlin, who is based in Ethiopia, received the honour at the age of 93 after a life dedicated to improving the health outcomes of women who have had obstetric fistulas.

Her journey started in 1959 when she and her late husband, Dr Reg Hamlin, accepted a three-year contract from the Ethiopian government to work as obstetrician-gynaecologists.

“We’ve known they’ve (Catherine and Reg) been amazing all their lives, but it’s lovely to see that recognition,” Dr Morgan said.

Obstetric fistulas occur when a hole develops between either the bladder or rectum and the vagina during childbirth.

Dr Morgan said there was no public health awareness of the condition when Catherine and Reg arrived in Ethiopia and women who experienced the complication became socially isolated due to unpleasant symptoms including odour and incontinence.

“When a woman gets a fistula, she is shunned and becomes a complete outcast,” Dr Morgan said.

“The biggest thing is the importance of highlighting this (condition) as a complication of labour. Every woman needs that care at time of delivery.”

The Hamlins were so shocked by the extent of the problem they dedicated their lives to improving outcomes for women in the country.

They went on to open the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, a rehabilitation centre, a midwives’ college, a further five regional hospitals and 34 rural health centres. Their initiative has restored the health of more than 50,000 women.

Dr Morgan first visited Ethiopia in 1982-83 and didn’t return until 2012, after which she became a board member of the couple’s charity, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia.

She said it had been amazing revisiting the main hospital and noting the difference her aunt and uncle had made.

“There’s a glorious garden. It’s on a hill and there are women sitting on the steps, chatting,” she said.

“They’ve finally come to a place where no one is holding their nose or shunning them.”

State finalists will gather in Canberra on January 25 for the naming of the Senior Australian of the Year.


  • 1950 – Catherine and Reg marry.
  • 1960s – The couple sign a contract to work for three years in Ethiopia. They initially work out of the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa. They refine techniques to close obstetric fistula injuries and continue to treat a broad range of cases. The couple treat 300 women in the first three years.
  • 1975 – The Hamlins open the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital after fundraising to finance the project.
  • 2003 – Started planning for and subsequently opened a further five regional hospitals.
  • 2007 Hamlin College of Midwives opens.

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