Catherine Hamlin, an Australian obstetrician and gynecologist who spent most of her life treating Ethiopian women suffering from a unique childbirth injury, died at the age of 96 at her Addis Ababa home. Her death was announced by the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, a charity based in Sydney, Australia, that she co-founded. In 1959, Dr. Hamlin moved to Ethiopia with her husband, also a doctor, to work as a gynecologist at a hospital in Addis Ababa. Their planned three-year stint turned into a sixty-year-long mission to treat and prevent a childbirth injury known as an obstetric fistula.
This is a condition occurring in women due to prolonged labor, when blood flow to the vaginal tissue is obstructed, the tissue dies, and a hole forms in the vaginal wall into the bladder or rectum. This leaves the woman incontinent and, in some cases, their husbands leave them or they’re shunned by their communities. When the Hamlins first arrived in Ethiopia, there was virtually no treatment for such an injury in the country. She and her husband, who died in 1993, pioneered innovative surgical techniques to treat obstetric fistulas, techniques that are still used in hospitals today.
Why It Matters
During Women’s History Month, stories like this shed light on the contributions to medical science and health by women such as Dr. Hamlin. Her surgical innovations have helped many thousands of women in Ethiopia and the rest of the continent. The World Health Organization estimated in 2018 that more than two million women lived with obstetric fistula injuries across Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, meaning the work Dr. Hamlin started six decades ago is still needed.