“The Saint of Addis Ababa”, Dr Catherine Hamlin, laid to rest

23 Mar 2020

World-renowned obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Catherine Hamlin, who devoted her life to Ethiopia, passed away peacefully on 18th March, at her home in the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia where she had lived for 61 years. She was 96.

Dr Hamlin, together with her late husband Dr Reginald Hamlin OBE, co-founded Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, a healthcare centre treating women who suffer from the debilitating effects of obstetric fistula – a crippling condition that results from complications in childbirth.

In 1958, the Hamlins answered an advertisement in The Lancet medical journal for gynaecologists to set up a school of midwifery in Addis Ababa. Together with their six-year-old son, Richard, they travelled to Ethiopia to take up the contract. What had been intended as a three-year stay in Addis Ababa turned into a lifetime of service to the Ethiopian people.

Dr Hamlin with Mamitu Gashe in 1994. Mamitu was one of the women who Dr Hamlin and her husband treated in the early days, when they worked at Princess Tsehai Hospital. Trained by the Hamlins, Mamitu is now an internationally respected fistula surgeon.

Today, Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia is a healthcare network of over 550 Ethiopian staff – many trained by Catherine – servicing six hospitals, Desta Mender rehabilitation centre, the Hamlin College of Midwives and 80 Hamlin supported Midwifery Clinics.

Over the past 61 years, more than 60,000 Ethiopian women have received the life-changing reconstructive surgery for obstetric fistula.

“My dream is to eradicate obstetric fistula. Forever. I won’t do this in my lifetime, but you can in yours.”

Leading tributes, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed tweeted, “I express my deep sorrow at the passing of Dr Catherine Hamlin. Ethiopia has lost a true gem who dedicated more than sixty years to restoring the dignity of thousands of women. I wish her loved ones, friends and colleagues comfort. May she Rest In Peace.”

President Sahle-Work Zewde said, “Dr Hamlin was a hero who saved more than sixty thousand Ethiopian women and girls from obstetric fistula; a physically and psychologically traumatizing condition which caused many women and girls to be ostracized from their communities. I am confident that the many professionals trained under Dr Hamlin throughout the years will continue the work she started at the Fistula Hospital she founded; the only one of its kind in Ethiopia.”

Dr Tedros Adhanom, World Health Organisation Director General and former Ethiopian Minister of Health said, “This news breaks my heart. Thank you Catherine for the vast legacy you leave for the women and girls of Ethiopia and the world. You were the best of humanity and very special.  We all must continue carrying your mission forward.”

Her biographer John Little described her as a “marvel” and quoted The New York Times which wrote “Dr Hamlin is the new Mother Teresa of our age.”

Committed to ensuring Catherine’s dream to eradicate obstetric fistula in Ethiopia becomes a reality, Tesfaye Mamo, Chief Executive Officer of Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia, said, “Most of her 96 years were generously given to help the poor women of our country with traumatic birth injuries. We are all thankful for Catherine’s lifelong dedication. We promise to continue her legacy and realise her dream to eradicate fistula from Ethiopia. Forever.”

In 2012, the Ethiopian Government awarded Catherine an Honorary Ethiopian Citizenship and in 2019 Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed presented her with the Eminent Citizen Award in recognition of her lifetime of service to the women of Ethiopia. She was also twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received numerous awards.

Prime Minister Abiy with Dr Hamlin in 2019

In 2020 Catherine celebrated her 61st year in Ethiopia, where she lived most of her life, in her original house in the grounds of her Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, adored by her patients, staff and the Ethiopian people. She was often referred to as “Emaye” meaning Mother. Catherine was not just committed to spending her life treating thousands of women, she spent her whole adult life changing lives – for the better.

During the last years of her life, Catherine was confident that her legacy would live on:

“When I die, this place will go on for many, many years until we have eradicated fistula altogether – until every woman in Ethiopia is assured of a safe delivery and a live baby.”

Catherine was buried at the St Peter and St Paul Catholic Cemetery in Addis Ababa. 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, two great grandchildren, her sister Ailsa Pottie and brothers Donald and Jock Nicholson.

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