Young Fred Hollows | The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ

Young Fred Hollows

Colin, Fred (middle) and Monty Hollows as children in Palmerston North.

Colin, Fred (middle) and Monty Hollows as children in Palmerston North.

Kiwi eye surgeon Fred Hollows was born in Dunedin on April 9th, 1929.

Fred's father, Joseph Hollows, worked for the railways as an engine driver and met Fred's mother Clarice at the railway junction in Ohakune. The second of four boys, Fred spent the first seven years of his life in Dunedin where he attended North East Valley Primary School. His memories of Dunedin were that it was a 'cold, hard place.'

In 1936, Joseph was promoted and the family moved to Palmerston North. But, disenchanted with his work, Joseph decided to retire from the railways and invest in six acres of land on the outskirts of town. He started a successful chrysanthemum growing business that earned him an international reputation.

Church was an important part of life, and Fred described the family atmosphere as respectable and teetotal, but not pious or judgemental. Fred's biggest influence during his younger years was his father who was a Christian Marxist, a pacifist and an anti-nuclear campaigner.

Fred's teenage years

Fred Hollows (front row, far right) attended Palmerston North Boys' High School.Fred attended Palmerston North Boys' High School where he did well academically and learnt to play the bugle. He played First XV rugby although his smaller stature meant he spent “a good few Saturday nights” getting stitched up at the hospital. He was also a member of the Protestant Boys' Brigade and played the trumpet in the Brigade band.

Throughout his teenage years, Fred attended church enthusiastically and began to read 'a bit of theology'. Towards the end of high school he sat some Bible study exams and to his surprise came first in New Zealand. Not long afterwards, he set off to study divinity and arts at Otago University in Dunedin, imagining he would become a minister. “You go with your strengths, don’t you,” he said.

A change of heart

At the end of his first year at university, Fred took a summer holiday job at a mental hospital in Porirua. His fellow workers liked a bit of a drink and a good time, and Fred “discovered what secular goodness was”.  He arrived in Porirua “a teetotal, non-smoking virgin” and came back “a very changed character indeed”.

Fred returned to Dunedin an agnostic with an interest in psychology. He dropped divinity and took chemistry and physiology - subjects that would help him understand how the brain works. He discovered the joy of rock climbing and worked in the bush during the holidays. In his third year he transfered to Victoria Univeristy in Wellington where he continued what was now an arts degree.

A mail plane brings an offer

Fred Hollows (right) with their horse Maori Jack. After completing the third year of his degree Fred took a job deep in the South Island bush, mapping and surveying indigenous timber. While he was there a mail plane delivered two letters - one from Victoria University telling him he had failed an education subject, and the other from the University of Otago offering him a place in medicine - he'd come in the top 100 in New Zealand in his science subjects.

Fred didn't have much time to consider the offer becasue the plane was leaving that same day. A medical student he was working with told him that medicine was “bloody good” and that it would lead to a well-paid job. So Fred scribbled off 'yes' to Otago, and started medical school at the end of the summer.

Study hard and play hard

For the next few years, Fred “studied hard in bursts, played up a bit.” There were a lot of rich people in the medical school and Fred's class consciousness was heightened during this time. "I observed them but didn't aspire to join them," he said.

Fred also spent a lot of time in the mountains.

“Mountain climbing got into my blood then and it was important to me for the next thirty years. It puts things into perspective – risks and skills, life and death, gives you the measure of problems and people,” he said.

Fred met his first wife Mary Skiller while he was working as a guide on Fox Peak in South Canterbury. They parted nearly twenty years later, and Mary died in 1975.

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