Catherine Hamlin

Now, here’s a thing.  In 2004 Oprah Winfrey, the chat show host signed a personal cheque of $450,000 and gave it to a guest on her show.  That guest was Dr Catherine Hamlin, who by then had been working for 46 years as an obstetrician in Ethiopia and ran a hospital specialising in surgery for young women with severe obstetric injuries, often caused by being child brides and giving birth in their early teens.

According to her obituary in the Economist (the source of most of the information in this article) Catherine and her husband Reg (also an obstetrician), had answered an advert placed in the Lancet in 1958 to set up and run a midwifery course in Ethiopia.

When they got there, they found not only primitive conditions (they lived in a mud-built house) but also many young girls coming to their hospital with terrible internal injuries, caused by early childbirth but compounded by conditions such as malnutrition and consequent small size.

Not only desperately ill and injured, but also often socially stigmatised and abandoned by their families, these girls had no hope of any sort of life or longevity.

Catherine and Reg had to learn about how to deal with these injuries, because they were virtually non-existent in Western countries by that time. Reg tended to follow what he had learnt, but Catherine was much more flexible and undertook a range of new and innovative procedures, Ethiopia effectively becoming a testbed for techniques developed elsewhere, but hardly ever needed in the countries where they were developed.

Reg died in 1993, but Catherine continued on after his death, doing operations until she was 92, stopping only when she could not stand without holding onto her sticks for support. In total she undertook some 25,000 procedures.

She worked tirelessly for the hospital, also becoming for it what she called ’a professional beggar’ (hence her appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show). She died on 18 March 2020, aged 96. 

What motivated this woman, throughout this time?  Her faith in Christ and her desire to serve him. As the Economist put it, “She was not a missionary doctor, but a doctor who was a Christian…She told Oprah that she did it because she believed that that was what God wanted her to do’. Elsewhere, the Bishop of Sydney was quoted as saying[1] “Catherine’s commitment to use her remarkable gifts for innovative fistula surgery arose from her deep commitment to Christ’.

Reading about Catherin Hamlin is a humbling experience. I was reminded of the parable of the talents, and the master asking each of his servants what he had done with what he had been given[2] – she certainly made the most of hers – what are we doing with ours?


[1] Bishop Glenn Davies quoted in ‘A woman of profound faith who has left an indelible mark upon modern medicine’, https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/a-woman-of-profound-faith-who-has-left-an-indelible-mark-upon-modern-medicine

[2] Matthew 25:14–30