Hamlin has been recognised by the United Nations agency UNFPA as a pioneer in fistula surgery for her development of techniques and procedures for obstetric fistula treatment. The Hamlins, together with the hospital staff, have treated more than 60,000 women to date for obstetric fistula. She died in Addis Ababa on 18 March 2020.
Three trainee midwives with Catherine Hamlin at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in 2009
In 1958 the Hamlins answered an advertisement placed by the Ethiopian government in The Lancet medical journal for an obstetrician and gynaecologist to establish a midwifery school at the Princess Tsehay Hospital in Addis Ababa. They arrived in 1959 with their six-year-old son, Richard. The Hamlins had never seen an obstetric fistula before — they were an "academic rarity" having been virtually eradicated in the United States in 1895. (The first fistula hospital closed its doors in New York City in 1925.) Seeing many cases arrive at the school, they decided to create a dedicated hospital. Fifteen years later, in 1974, they founded Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and over the years, the hospital has treated more than 60,000 patients.
Hamlin still lived in her cottage on the grounds of the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and remained very active in the day-to-day work of the hospital and patient care up until her death. Reg Hamlin was actively involved in the activities of the hospital and was a member of its Board of Trustees until his death in 1993.
On 1 January 2001, she was awarded the Centenary Medal for "long and outstanding service to international development in Africa". She is the author of the best-selling book, The Hospital by the River: A Story of Hope, first published in 2001. A second edition was published in 2016 with a foreword by Dame Quentin Bryce. She has been described as a modern-day "Mother Teresa" in an editorial by Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times.
Aged 80, Hamlin appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show in January 2004. The episode was included in Winfrey's 20-year anthology collection. Winfrey travelled to the hospital and filmed another episode for her show, broadcast in December 2005. The 2007 documentary, "A Walk to Beautiful" featured five Ethiopian women who were treated and cured by Hamlin and her team at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital.
Both Hamlin and her hospital received numerous awards. Known for her dedication and humility, Hamlin said of the plaudits she received that "I'm doing what I love doing and it's not a hardship for me to be working in Ethiopia with these women".