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Frederick Cossom (Fred) Hollows (1929–1993)

by Peter Baume

This article was published:

Frederick Cossom Hollows (1929–1993), ophthalmologist, was born on 9 April 1929 at Dunedin, New Zealand, second of four sons of Joseph Alfred Hollows, engine driver, and his wife Clarice Sylvia, née Marshall. Educated at Palmerston North Boys’ High School (1943–47), Fred was a good scholar and played for the first XV rugby team as a front-row forward. He grew up as a dutiful member of the Churches of Christ and, influenced by his father, became interested in social justice. After completing a year’s study in divinity at the University of New Zealand (Otago), he took a vacation job at Porirua mental hospital.

As a result of his experiences with patients and fellow attendants, Hollows abandoned his religious beliefs; as he later described, ‘sex, alcohol and secular goodness … surgically removed my Christianity, leaving no scars’ (Hollows and Corris 1994, 29). After beginning arts at the University of New Zealand (Victoria), he returned to Otago as a medical student (MB, ChB, 1956). Moving further to the left politically, he was for a number of years a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand. He developed a love of mountain climbing, which became his main source of recreation and relaxation. While employed during his holidays as a guide, he met Mary Skiller (d. 1975) whom he married in 1958; they were to have a daughter and a son.

Hollows became interested in ophthalmology during terms as a hospital resident in Wellington (1955–56), Auckland (1957), and Tauranga (1958–59). In 1961 he travelled to England to study at the University College London Institute of Ophthalmology (Moorfields Eye Hospital). As an ophthalmic registrar (1961–64) at the Medical Research Council Epidemiological Unit in Cardiff, he undertook pioneering research on the epidemiology of glaucoma in mining towns. He was made a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1964.

In 1965 Hollows was appointed associate professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales and chairman of ophthalmology at Prince of Wales Hospital, Randwick. After meeting the author Frank Hardy, he joined the Save the Gurindji Committee, a group of left-wing activists formed to support Aboriginal pastoral workers on strike at Wave Hill station, Northern Territory. He became aware of the alarming prevalence of curable eye disease, particularly trachoma, among Aboriginal people during visits to Wattie Creek (Daguragu) and Wave Hill in 1972, and to Bourke, Enngonia, and other New South Wales towns. In the early 1970s the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders was pressing the Commonwealth government to respond to the critical health needs of Aboriginal people. With Shirley Smith, Ross McKenna, John Russell, and other Aboriginal advocates, Hollows helped establish the Aboriginal Medical Service at Redfern, Sydney, in 1971.

Recognising that poor eye health and blindness were both causes and consequences of poverty, Hollows believed it an indictment of any society that allowed the incidence of such conditions to reach the levels he observed in Australia. Environmental health measures, such as access to clean running water and dust reduction, and education to improve standards of hygiene, could dramatically improve eye health. Simple operations on the lens of the eye, the cornea, or the eyelid, were effective in the treatment of trachoma. Commonwealth government funding in 1975 allowed him to establish the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program in association with the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists; he was appointed director, with Gordon Briscoe, a Mardudjara-Pitjantjatjara man from Central Australia, his deputy. Working in each State and Territory, between 1976 and 1979 his team examined one hundred and five thousand Aboriginal people, treated fifteen thousand, and performed one thousand operations. Adopting the slogan ‘no survey without service’ (Hollows and Corris 1994, 78), Hollows sought to ensure that those assessed as needing medical treatment received it. The final report of the NTEHP, presented to the Commonwealth minister for health on 28 March 1980, praised his ‘great humanity and unlimited enthusiasm,’ which had been an ‘inspiration to all who have been associated with him in the Program’ (Harley 1980, 2).

On 23 August 1980 Hollows married Gabrielle (Gabi) Beryl O’Sullivan, an orthoptist, at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Randwick. While continuing his work in Aboriginal health, in 1985 he visited Nepal for six weeks and subsequently expanded his activities to other developing countries, particularly those he called the ‘cataract triangle’—Nepal, Eritrea, and Vietnam. As a consultant to the World Health Organization between 1985 and 1991, he undertook surveys of eye health in each of these countries. He identified strongly with Eritrea in its war of liberation against Ethiopia, and was impressed by the underground hospital and medical manufacturing plants in the war-torn country. ‘I could see no reason,’ he wrote, ‘why they couldn’t manufacture intra-ocular lenses … the most expensive little bits of plastic in existence’ (Hollows and Corris 1994, 218). To counter the extortionate prices of Western manufacturers, he began to raise funds to establish lens factories in Eritrea, Vietnam, and Nepal.

Appointed AO in 1985, Hollows was honoured as Australian of the Year in 1990. He established the Fred Hollows Foundation in 1992 to continue the strategies he had developed: to transfer technologies to disadvantaged communities, enabling them to use existing skills and capabilities to create lasting improvements in eye care. In 1991 he was appointed AC; he was promoted to professor the following year.

A lover of the Australian and New Zealand bush, Hollows was a voracious reader of poetry and history, and a keen chess player. He was aggressive and passionate by nature, with a ‘thoroughly no-bullshit approach,’ and could ‘get very angry, sometimes unfairly’ (Waterford 1993, 11) with his colleagues, friends, and family. Even prime ministers feared his ability to embarrass them by ‘nagging them aloud about aid, or Timor, or Bougainville’ (Waterford 1993, 11). Preferring to avoid bureaucracy and deal with problems and people directly, he was prepared to circumvent rules and regulations when he considered a cause justified direct action. Although believing strongly in social justice and equality, he spoke against popular causes which he saw as defying available evidence. Thus he offended some when he asserted that gay men should share responsibility with health service providers to prevent the spread of human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS), and that Aboriginal cultures needed to adapt to the modern world.

Diagnosed with metastatic renal cancer in 1989, Hollows died on 10 February 1993 in his home at Randwick. He was survived by his wife, a son and daughter from his first marriage, and a son and four daughters from his second. After a state funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, he was buried in the cemetery at Bourke, where he had spent much time, and which he had grown to love. In 1993 Gabi accepted on his behalf the Schweitzer award of excellence from the Chapman University of California. She continued the work of his foundation; intra-ocular lens factories in Nepal, Eritrea, and Vietnam started production after his death. In 2010 the Royal Australian Mint released a one-dollar coin bearing his portrait.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Briscoe, Gordon. ‘Obituary for Professor Fred Cossom Hollows, 1929–1993.’ Aboriginal History 17, no. 1–2 (1993): 1–3

  • Cameron, Kirsty. ‘Hollow’s Vision Still in Sight.’ Weekend Australian, 26 January 1991, 17

  • Canberra Times. ‘Cancer Claims a Humble Icon.’ 11 February 1993, 3

  • Harley, Geoffrey. ‘Preface.’ In The National Trachoma and Eye Health Program of the Royal Australian College of Opthalmologists, National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, 2. Sydney: Royal Australian College of Opthalmologists, 1980

  • Hollows, Fred, and Peter Corris. Fred Hollows: An Autobiography. Redfern, NSW: Kerr Publishing, 1994

  • Middleton, C. G. ‘Professor Frederick Cossom Hollows.’ Medical Journal of Australia, 7 February 1994, 140–1

  • Waterford, Jack. ‘A Dedication to Making the Blind Men See.’ Canberra Times, 11 February 1993, 11

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Citation details

Peter Baume, 'Hollows, Frederick Cossom (Fred) (1929–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Fred Hollows, 1991

Fred Hollows, 1991

National Library of Australia, 22839744

On cataract surgery in Africa
National Library of Australia
15 May 1991

Life Summary [details]


9 April, 1929
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand


10 February, 1993 (aged 63)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (multiple myeloma)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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