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Fred Hollows

Fred Hollows

Fred Hollows. Photo courtesy of Frank Violi and the Hollows Foundation

In 1990, the title of Australian of the Year was awarded to Fred Hollows in recognition of his work in treating avoidable blindness in some of the world's poorest communities. When he died in 1993, he left behind a foundation that continues his work around the world today.

Fred Hollows – the early years

Fred Hollows was born in New Zealand in 1929. Growing up, he always wanted to be a missionary, but a stint working in a mental hospital convinced him to follow a career in medicine. After completing his studies and specialising as an ophthalmologist (eye doctor), Fred moved to Australia. Within five years he was head of the Eye Department at a leading Sydney hospital.

While working in Sydney, Fred became aware of the need for an Aboriginal health service and set about establishing the first Aboriginal Medical Service. In 2005, there were more than 60 of these health services throughout Australia. It was through his work with the service and his travels to remote aboriginal settlements that Fred became aware of some of the serious health issues facing aboriginal people – particularly trachoma and other avoidable eye diseases. The fact that these diseases were easily avoided, often went completely untreated and resulted in blindness shocked Fred and so began his life's work.

Fred was a man who was quick to recognise a problem and even quicker to act and find a solution. In his words: 'When I've seen an opportunity, I haven't sat down and called a committee meeting...we've gone and done it.' This attitude helped him to inspire many doctors and other health professionals to volunteer their time for his national program to attack eye disease in Indigenous Australians. This program became known as the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program.

Fred Hollows examining an Indigenous Australian

From 1976 to 1978, his teams screened 100,000 people, 60% of whom were of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage. Because of this program, the rate of curable blindness among these communities was halved.

This 'can do' attitude sometimes meant that Fred could be considered as being short tempered and outspoken. His early campaigns earned him almost as many enemies as friends and he was often referred to as the 'Wild Colonial Boy' of Australian surgery. This nickname referred to both his love of the bush as well as his temper.

A Dream is Born

Fred then heard about a civil war in Eritrea (Africa) and how there were no eye doctors to treat the people who were suffering. At the time, Eritrea was one of the world's poorest countries and once again, Fred could not just stand by and do nothing.

'Each year in Africa about two and a half million people go blind...and they just go blind... they sit around in their huts,' he said at the time. So again he mobilised a team to go over and help.

By the 1980s, Fred had extended his campaign for treating avoidable eye disease and was soon travelling all over the world. A great believer in helping people to help themselves, Fred set up eye clinics in some of the world's poorest countries. At these clinics he not only treated people suffering from eye diseases, but also taught local doctors how to treat these diseases so they could continue his work.

One of the six table operating theatres in action without operating microscopes at Lahan Hospital (Nepal) in 2001

One of the six table operating theatres in action without operating microscopes at Lahan Hospital (Nepal) in 2001. Photo courtesy of Rex Shore and the Hollows Foundation.

As word of his work spread, more and more Australians volunteered their time and donated money so Fred could continue to establish his clinics in developing countries around the world. His dream of setting up an eye lens factory in Eritrea became a reality when Australians donated more then $6 million to the cause.

Fred's dream was to continue to his work, so when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1989, he set about ensuring the dream would stay alive. The Fred Hollows Foundation was established in 1992 and when Fred died in 1993, his wife Gabby continued the work of the Foundation.

The Fred Hollows Foundation

The Fred Hollows Foundation continues to work to achieve Fred's vision of a world where no one is needlessly blind and of a land where Indigenous people enjoy the same health outcomes as all Australians. Since the Foundation was established in 1992, it has worked in more than thirty countries around the world.

Zubaida Bibi smiling and wearing an eye patch after her sight restoring cataract operation

Zubaida Bibi smiling and wearing an eye patch after her sight restoring cataract operation. Zubaida was the recipient of the one millionth Fred Hollows intraocular lens. Lahore (Punjab, Pakistan), January 2003. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Farooq and the Hollows Foundation.

At the moment , the Foundation has programs in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Eritrea, Indigenous Australia, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Vanuatu, Vietnam and throughout the Pacific region (including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Samoa and Tonga).

The Foundation continues to grow thanks to the generous support of the many donations it receives. To date, many tens of thousands of people have been helped by the dream Fred put into place, but there is still a long way to go.

Although most people think of Fred's legacy as the gift of sight to some of the world's poorest people, perhaps his real legacy is showing us just what a difference we can all make to the world and how important it is to care. In his words, 'To my mind, having a care and concern for others is the highest of the human qualities.'

Useful links

Background information on Fred Hollows

Last updated: 18 August 2015

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