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Fred Hollows, True Hero

Updated on January 14, 2015

Fred Hollows, 1929 - 1993, gave vision to more than one million people

Fred Hollows was an inspiring man. A passionate man.

An ophthalmologist at a prestigious Sydney hospital, he helped set up the first Aboriginal Medical Service and launched a national programme to combat eye disease in Aboriginal Australians.

By the 1980s, Fred had extended his campaign for treating avoidable eye disease in some of the world's poorest countries.

Today there are more than one million people in the world who can see -- because of Fred Hollows


Fred Hollows was a True Humanitarian

In the real sense of the word

Fred Hollows was a humanitarian in the fullest sense of the term: someone who acknowledged the limits imposed on us by nature but refused to accept the limits we impose on ourselves.

He understood the term "aid" in the only way it makes any sense, as helping people overcome the obstacles that stop them from standing on their own feet.

When Fred Hollows wanted to aid overseas cataract victims, he didn't make a one-off charity contribution, he didn't organise a Rock Concert and make himself famous, he set about helping the Eritreans and the Nepalese and the Vietnamese to produce their own lenses, without concern for the profit rates of Western companies.

This earned him sneers and worse from those profit-making companies which prefer to see an aging musician talk about "poverty" in sorrowful tones than to see a doctor teaching people to help themselves.

There is profit to be made from poverty - and Fred Hollow's work threatened that profit.


Fred Hollows at work
Fred Hollows at work

Fred, the Wild Colonial Boy

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

Fred's anger at a system which allowed curable blindness in indigenous Australians often meant that he was considered short tempered. 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.

"Having a care and concern for others is the highest of the human qualities." ~ Fred Hollows

Fred Hollows at work
Fred Hollows at work

The Work of Fred Hollows

By the 1980s, Fred had extended his campaign for treating avoidable eye disease and was soon traveling all over the world. A great believer in people being empowered 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.

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.

Three out of four people who are blind don't have to be. They are blinded by poverty alone.

Fred is laid to rest in the Outback - He will always be remembered

Fred's Grave in Bourke

By 1989 Fred knew he was dying of cancer and he died at home in the February of 1993, surrounded by his friends, his wife Gabi and their five children.

Some days later, I attended his official state funeral at St Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, but Fred was laid to rest in Bourke, a northern New South Wales town, amongst the red dirt and mulgas.

The Town of Bourke

The town of Bourke symbolises the 'end of the road' in colloquial Australian. The Back o' Bourke is more than a geographic location, it's part of the Australian language, part of the folklore.

Fred first visited Bourke in the early 1970s, and his eye team held regular weekend clinics to Bourke District Hospital. They were welcomed in the true Bush spirit and provided services to other communities in the district, including Brewarrina, Cobar, Enngonia, Walgett, and Wilcannia.

These vital screening and surgical services are continued today by the Eye Team from the Department of Ophthalmology at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.

Pretty much everyone in the district knew Fred and had a story about him to tell anyone who would listen. Whether it be about how he treated their eyes, how he swore at them, cajoled them, joked or shared a yarn with them.

Fred Hollows will always be remembered in the Outback.

A Granite Sculpture for a Gravestone

Sculpture on Fred's Grave

In 2006, Fred's original gravestone was replaced with a new granite sculpture, created by Austrian sculptor Andreas Buisman and erected with the generous support of friends and the local community.

The Hollows' family invite visitors to touch and feel the rock, to climb on it or sit peacefully and contemplate life.

For them, the polished surface of this new installation is reminiscent of the surface of those small medical marvels, pieces of clinical grade perspex called intraocular lenses. IOLs replace the natural damaged lens of the eye and restore sight to those living with cataract blindness. Factories in Eritrea and Nepal, named after Fred, now manufacture these lenses.

For Fred's Sake

The hymn Amazing Grace declares: "Was blind but now I see." and Fred Hollows has been almost deified since his death in 1993.

It's the sort of joke he would appreciate. Fred, who once studied for the priesthood, died an atheist. In the end he cared too much about humans to devote his life to God. Tran Van Giap was one of those humans.

In 1992, the Vietnamese boy with a severely damaged eye, squeezed to the front of a crowd gathered around Hollows. The boy's injury and lack of treatment enraged Fred. What the seven-year-old didn't know was that Hollows was ravaged with cancer and had less than a year to live.

In 2008, Giap made a pilgrimage of more than 7000km to Bourke to thank the man who turned his life around that day -- and to assure him his work had not been in vain.

A Message from Fred

Cambodia awards Top Medal to Fred's Foundation

The Cambodian Government awarded The Fred Hollows Foundation with a rare medal of honour, acknowledging the organisation's contribution to preventing unnecessary blindness in the country.

The National Development Medal was presented at the official opening of a new eye clinic in Prey Veng Province in south western Cambodia in early November 2008. The medal has only ever been awarded to a handful of International Non Government Organisations.

Australian of the Year

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

Why I support the Fred Hollows Foundation

20% of my income goes to continue Fred's work in treating avoidable blindness and improving indigenous health. If you would like to donate to keep Fred's work going, please visit the The Fred Hollows Foundation

Photo : Khim Rath, who can now see after a successful cataract operation, Kampong Chhnang province, Cambodia.

Blindness is a significant public health issue in Cambodia. Over 160,000 people are blind and an additional 20,000 become blind each year. The main cause of blindness is cataract, which can be treated by a simple 15 minute operation at an average cost of $25

When I donate to Fred Hollows Foundation my money goes to a non-government organisation which seeks to eradicate avoidable blindness in developing countries ...

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© 2009 Susanna Duffy

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    • jmsp206 profile image

      Julia M S Pearce 3 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      A fantastic page for a really special man!

    • mariacarbonara profile image

      mariacarbonara 3 years ago

      Hadn't heard of Fred, but its people like this that make the world a better place. Awesome lens

    • profile image

      grannysage 5 years ago

      What a great tribute to a great humanitarian. Truly, I had never heard of him but I'm glad I stopped by today. I don't have any angel dust, but send you lots of happy grannysage blessings.

    • cdcraftee profile image

      Christine Larsen 5 years ago from South Australia

      I love that the advertising fraternity continue to use videos of Fred Hollows on commercials to promote his wonderful cause. Just love seeing those twinkling eyes peering over the specs on the end of his nose. Hope the world never forgets him.


    • profile image

      CannyGranny 5 years ago

      Truly he was a Great Man. We need more like him in the world

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