The eye doctor | The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ

The eye doctor

“I studied medicine so I could help others." Photo: Michael Amendolia

“I studied medicine so I could help others." Photo: Michael Amendolia

Fred once said, “I studied medicine so I could help others – set a leg or whatever – and it’s given me a great deal of satisfaction.” But setting legs was not what Professor Fred Hollows ended up doing.

After graduating from medical school, Fred became a Resident at Auckland Public Hospital. The first job he had was in general surgery and the senior surgical tutor said to him, “Hollows, you’re the house surgeon here now….you’ve got an easy job. All you have to do is know everything about these patients every time I show up….”

His next job was at the public hospital in Tauranga, and it was here that Fred made his first significant move towards being an eye doctor. He had done ‘an eye term’ as part of his medical training, and the eye surgeon at Tauranga hospital let him assist with his operations. Within a year, Fred knew how to remove a cataract safely.

At the same time, Fred had a growing interest in practising medicine in Africa – “there seemed to be a crying need for properly run clinics, free of political or church influence.” He had also been told that if you wanted to be useful In Africa you had to know how to take out a cataract.

Studying in London

Fred decided he wanted some specialist training, but at that time there was nothing available at postgraduate level in New Zealand. So he set his sights on moving to the UK to get a Diploma of Ophthalmology.

Fred Hollows graduates from university. Photo: NewspixHe worked as a general practitioner for a year to fund the move, and also worked as the ship’s doctor on the way over. He described the six week trip to London via the Panama Canal as “one of the sweetest times of my life”. After he began his study in London he took a night job working as a “radio doctor”, zipping about in the snow in a Mini Minor.

Fred was one of the top two candidates in the Diploma of Ophthalmology examinations, and a fellowship was the obvious next step.

Off to Wales

Studying for the Fellowship Primary at the Royal College of Surgeons in the early 1960s was the most intellectually demanding period of Fred’s life. He passed the notoriously tough Primary exam and got a job in Cardiff (Wales) as an ophthalmology registrar. He was determined to continue his run and sit for the fellowship proper as soon as possible. He failed twice. So he knuckled down and on his third attempt passed with no trouble.

Fred’s mentor

The most important influence on Fred in Cardiff was Professor Archie Cochrane, a pioneer of epidemiology. They collaborated on a glaucoma survey in the Welsh valleys which gained Fred an academic reputation. Fred took to heart Archie’s firm belief in “no survey without service,” and followed this approach when he led the ground breaking trachoma survey of outback Australia in the late 1970s.

Off to Australia

After finishing his studies, Fred applied for two jobs: a senior lectureship at the University of Otago and an associate professorship at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. After finding out that the New Zealand Security Service were keeping tabs on his political activities, he decided to take the job in Australia.

From 1965 to 1992, he was the head of the ophthalmology department, overseeing the teaching at the University of New South Wales, and the Prince of Wales and Prince Henry hospitals. In his first year, he set up a small eye unit at the Prince of Wales Hospital and performed the hospital’s first cataract extraction.

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