Pioneering ophthalmologist Professor Fred Hollows had a simple vision – that everyone, everywhere would have the same access to eye care and sight-restoring surgery.
Rather than focus on building a profitable private practice, Fred made it his mission to address the barriers to eye care, both for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia and in poor countries around the world.
But in 1989 Fred was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life four years later, so the legendary eye surgeon and humanitarian became a man on a mission to ensure his work would continue.
Professor Fred Hollows examines the eyes of Tran Van Giap during his last trip to Vietnam in 1992. Giap had his sight restored and is now a maths teacher and father of two. Photo: Michael Amendolia, The Fred Hollows Foundation.
This year, The Foundation set up in his name, celebrates 30 years of continuing that legacy in Australia and around the world.
“At our family home in Sydney, friends and colleagues would come and go, sitting around a table to engage in conversations, discussions and arguments about how to continue Fred’s goal to end avoidable blindness,” says Gabi Hollows, Fred’s widow, and The Foundation’s founding director.
Gabi convinced the 1990 Australian of the Year to establish The Fred Hollows Foundation shortly before he died. She describes the work as “like dropping a stone in the lake and watching the ripples grow”.
Over the past three decades, The Foundation has restored sight to more than 3 million people across the world, and delivered more than 200 million doses of antibiotics for trachoma, the leading infectious cause of blindness. It has persuaded governments to integrate eye health into national health systems and tackled diverse local issues around vision.
Shortly before Fred died he discharged himself from hospital to go to Vietnam and deliver on a promise he made to build that nation’s eye health workforce.
“Fred said we’d train 300 surgeons in three years,” Gabi says. “We did. And these days there are 1,000 eye surgeons doing cataract surgery in Vietnam.”
Fred’s early approach in Australia, and then Nepal, Eritrea and Vietnam, was to treat eye problems, train local eye health workers and make technology affordable. This “treat, train and equip” approach has been the blueprint for The Foundation’s global expansion ever since.
In 1985 Fred visited Nepal, where at the time almost 1% of the population was blind. Two-thirds of those cases were due to cataracts which could be fixed with a relatively simple surgery. But there were few doctors trained in the modern technique and the tiny plastic lenses that replace the clouded lens in cataract surgery were too expensive.
Fred met a young eye doctor, Sanduk Ruit, who shared his passion. Ruit came to Sydney to stay with Fred and Gabi and learn more about modern cataract surgery. The partnership between the two resulted in the establishment of cataract surgery training in Nepal, and building factories in Nepal and Eritrea that were able to produce high-quality intraocular lenses for less than $5. At the time lenses made in industrialised countries were about $150.
Gabi Hollows visits patients who have had cataract surgery in Vietnam. The Foundation has restored sight to more than 3 million people. Photo: Michael Amendolia.
The Foundation now works to end avoidable blindness in more than 25 countries, but for most Australians, Fred’s work in Australia is what they remember best.
On the world stage plenty of challenges remain in the fight against avoidable blindness. Covid-19 has disrupted access to services, and in many countries, led to longer waiting times for surgery. Global estimates are that by 2050 blindness will rise by more than 40% because of the world’s growing and ageing population, with the greatest burden in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
It was the sheer inequity of people in countries suffering from conditions easily fixed in rich countries that drove Fred Hollows’ outrage. “It’s obscene to let people go blind when they don’t have to,” he said.
Aboriginal artist and Gumatj elder Peter Datjing Burarrwanga after his cataract surgery. Datjing lives on remote Elcho Island off Arnhem Land. Photo Daniel Jesus Vignolli, The Fred Hollows Foundation.
After 30 years, his Foundation has grown to be one of Australia’s best-known charities and one of the leading eye health organisations in the world. Its appeal is still underlined by the spirit of the man who began it all.
Ray Martin, who first met Fred and Gabi at Wattie Creek when he was a journalist reporting on their work in the bush, and went on to become The Foundation’s first Chair, says: “Fred was one of a kind – brash, gruff, no nonsense – and fiercely committed to fighting injustice and ending avoidable blindness. As I’ve often said to Gabi, I’m sure Fred would be sitting somewhere, sucking on his pipe, having a whisky and be forever grateful for what we’ve been able to achieve.”
But as The Foundation marks 30 years, they know that Fred would be saying “don’t celebrate for too long, get on with it, there’s more to do.”
Night smiles with joy after her sight was restored in Kenya. Night and her father Steven had travelled five hours to the hospital thanks to The Fred Hollows Foundation. Photo Michael Amendolia, The Fred Hollows Foundation.
This is a sponsored article produced in partnership with The Fred Hollows Foundation.