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Biographical entry Hollows, Frederick Cossom (1929 - 1993)

Companion of the Order of Australia 1991; MRCS and FRCS 1964; MB ChB Otago 1956; Hon MD 1991; Hon DSc 1991; DO London 1961; FRACO 1968.

9 April 1929
Dunedin, New Zealand
10 February 1993


Fred Hollows was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 9 April 1929, the son of an engine driver. After schooling in Palmerston North he entered the Church of Christ College of Otago University, intending to devote his life to the ministry. He changed his mind however and studied medicine, qualifying MB in 1956. After resident posts in Auckland, Tauranga and Wellington he began to specialize in ophthalmology and came to England to study at Moorfields. He gained the DO in 1961 and the FRCS in 1964. Whilst in England he was recruited by Professor Archie Cochrane in Cardiff to undertake a glaucoma survey, an experience which was to inspire his later humanitarian work.

Moving to Australia, in 1965 he was appointed associate, later full, professor of ophthalmology in the University of New South Wales with chairmanship of the department of ophthalmology at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick. Within three years he had started his crusade to improve the health care of the Aboriginals, with the cure of trachoma as the first objective. With the help of volunteers he established Australia's first Aboriginal Health Centre at Radfern, Sydney. A national campaign for eye health aroused both great enthusiasm and serious political hostility, a combination which accorded with Hollows' compassion for the deprived and his open contempt for politicians. Having first joined the Communist party in 1950, he came to describe himself as an 'anarcho-syndicalist'. Broadening the scope of his crusade he went to Eritrea during its war with Ethiopia and performed eye operations under the most primitive conditions. His mission was to spawn the Fred Hollows Foundation, which carried on his humanitarian work setting up local factories for the production of artificial lenses for the treatment of cataract in Nepal, Eritrea and Vietnam.

His private life was no less turbulent than his public one, and he gave little attention to his own financial affairs. In 1958 he married Mary Skiller, but this marriage was dissolved after he had had a son by another partner. In 1980 he married Gabrielle O'Sullivan, by whom he had five children, and adopted another. He was a voracious reader who could quote John Donne as readily as Kipling. An intense competitor, he enjoyed a diversity of sports ranging from mountaineering and cycling to chess and billiards. On trips to the outback he developed skills as a carpenter, bulldozer driver and bore sinker and, indeed, encouraged those he trained to adopt the same tradesman-like approach to, and pride in, their medical work.

His 1992 bestselling book, Fred Hollows (co-authored by Peter Corris), revealed much about his nature - his compassion and humanitarianism and his pronounced aversion to insensitive authoritarianism. His work for the Aboriginals received wide recognition; in 1985 he declined to accept the Order of Australia as a protest against official neglect of his proteg├ęs, but in 1990 he was named Australian of the Year and thereafter accepted the Companionate of the Order of Australia. He received many other honours including, posthumously, the Albert Schweitzer Award for Excellence. He maintained the momentum of his crusade despite his renal carcinoma, becoming involved in the AIDS controversy in which he accused gays of politicizing the disease. He died on 10 February 1993, survived by his second wife and by seven children.

Sources used to compile this entry: [NZ Med J 1993 106 168; Daily Telegraph 12 November 1993; MJA 1994 160 7].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England