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Remembering Fred Hollows

David Arnold, Jude Barlow, Gordon Briscoe, Trevor Buzzacott, Brian Doolan, Gabi Hollows, Michael Loebenstein, Ray Martin, Rose Murray, 20 May 2016

DAVID ARNOLD: Ladies and gentlemen, it’s lovely to have you here. We are expecting a full house this afternoon so there may be a few people still coming but we will get going.

Welcome to the National Museum of Australia. This afternoon’s event is presented in partnership with the Fred Hollows Foundation, the National Film and Sound Archive and, of course, the National Museum of Australia. It’s wonderful for these three organisations to be able to collaborate with such an important event. I would like to acknowledge Brian Doolan, the CEO of the Fred Hollows Foundation, and Michael Loebenstein, the CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive. A warm welcome also to Gabi Hollows who I just met before. She’s been a very generous supporter of the National Museum of Australia and has made a number of donations to our National Historical Collection which we are eternally grateful for.

I want to welcome also our three guest panellists, although I know Brian will introduce them much more fully than I will. We have Gordon Briscoe, Trevor Buzzacott and Rose Murray. Welcome gentlemen and lady. Welcome also to Jude Barlow from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies who will be doing our welcome to country. A warm welcome, of course, to you.

My name is David Arnold, and I am one of the deputy directors here at the National Museum of Australia. I would like to begin myself by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and to pay my respects to their elders past and present. I would also like to pass on an apology from Dr Mat Trinca, our director, who would love to be here this afternoon. He is in New Zealand for the Museums Australasia conference, winning a number of awards, which is rather terrific. He wishes this event to go very well.

Today is an important event celebrating the legacy of Fred Hollows and in particular the 40th anniversary of the commencement of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. The Museum, as I mentioned before, has a number of objects in its National Historical Collection donated by the Fred Hollows Foundation that were used in the National Trachoma and Eye Health program including: a binocular indirect ophthalmoscope, optical trial lenses and frames, and two storage boxes.

We also have objects that have been donated by Gabi Hollows, including a visual chart light box that is currently on display in our Eternity gallery. Put your hand up if you have seen our display in the Eternity gallery – I am just curious to know. Quite a few people. If you haven’t then please if you have time visit it today or at another time. This light box was made in the early 1970s and was used for the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. It travelled with Fred, I am told, and his team to 465 remote communities around Australia to test the sight of Indigenous patients both before and after surgery – 465 times, that’s quite a number.

In addition, the Museum holds personal items of Fred Hollows, including some of his mountain climbing gear. In this collection there are what are called his ‘lucky’ climbing socks – lucky is in quotes so I presume that is what they are officially called – a backpack and an orange mountain climbing helmet.

Together these collections represent the public and private life of Fred Hollows: his passion for improving the eyesight and health of Indigenous Australians and those in developing countries, and his love of the outdoors. The significance of these collections is in both their connection to Fred Hollows personally and his work with the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program and the program’s efforts to narrow the gap between the health of Indigenous and non–Indigenous Australians.

As I have mentioned, Professor Fred Hollows’ story is on display in the Eternity gallery. The gallery features 50 stories of Australians which are organised under ten themes – some of you may know these themes. I am going to test you a bit here: four of them are the themes of joy, hope, passion and devotion. I wonder if someone is brave enough – and if you know the answer to this, you are not allowed to contribute – if you don’t know the answer to this: which of those four themes of joy, hope, passion and devotion do you think we have included Fred Hollows’ story under? Anyone brave enough to shout out on of them? Passion, thank you. Anyone else? Devotion. Any other offerings? There’s a trick to this question, but there is an answer to it. The story is captured under the theme of devotion. What really struck me when I was thinking about this this afternoon was that his story could really belong in any of those categories for very good reasons. We’ve captured it under the theme of devotion. It speaks to his devotion to eradicate avoidable blindness and improving Indigenous eye health.

I will leave you with one of Fred Hollows’ quotes that we have in that little exhibit in the Eternity gallery. It was an interview that he had with Pamela Bone of the Age in 1990 where he said: ‘The rich in any country will always be all right. The way to judge a country is by its poor people.’

The Museum is delighted to be holding this event in association with the Fred Hollows Foundation and the National Film and Sound Archive. Thank you for joining us. I hope it’s an informative and enjoyable afternoon; I am sure it will be. I encourage you to stop by and check out the little Eternity exhibit. Now I would like to introduce and welcome Jude Barlow from AIATSIS to come and welcome us to country. Jude is also a Ngunnawal elder. Welcome, Jude.

JUDE BARLOW: Thank you very much. My name is Jude, and I am a Ngunnawal woman and my family are the Wallabaloa people, a family group within the Ngunnawal language group. Firstly, I want to say thank you so much for asking me to be here today to welcome you to my cold country, and I note that we have put on some beautiful weather for you today. It’s a real privilege to represent my ancestors and my family. I would like to acknowledge Mr David Arnold, Mr Brian Doolan, Mr Gordon Briscoe, Mr Trevor Buzzacott and Ms Rose Murray, whose story I have just had the privilege of hearing and I was enraptured, and of course Gabi Hollows, a woman I have long admired.

I have also long been an admirer of the passion and compassion of the work of Fred. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every Australian knows Fred Hollows, and of course they greatly esteem his work. He was one of the first health practitioners, as we have heard, to recognise and actively do something about the enormous health gap between Aboriginal Australians and other Australians. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, Fred recognised the health needs of Aboriginal Australians and in particular in eye care.

I grew up on Erambie Mission in Cowra and I was raised by this marvellous lady who we called Auntie Viscount because she smoked Viscount cigarettes. She wasn’t even an elderly woman; she would have been about my age, even though I look fabulously young, so she was in about her 50s. But she was very ill and her eye health in particular was very bad, and sadly she wasn’t able to have been helped at that stage. But in the last 40 years since I left that mission, little has changed in the health gap between Aboriginal and other Australians and there is still much work to do. But with the wonderful continuing work of the Fred Hollows Foundation, I know that that gap is not insurmountable.

The act of welcoming another to country has been a continuing part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures for thousands of years. There were no fences that defined borders of Aboriginal lands but there were clear boundaries that separated country. So to cross to another’s country required permission and a ceremony of sorts was performed to allow visitors from other clans to travel safely across that country – a little bit like being welcomed into your home.

Today I acknowledge my ancestors: my grandparents, especially my Dad and in his memory, my Mum, aunties, uncles and cousins, and people who are caring for country and sharing their stories in order to broaden the depth of understanding of Australia’s first peoples. I also acknowledge any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present today and, especially to my elders, I pay you my most profound respects. As a representative of my people, I speak with the voice of my family and ancestors when I welcome others to Ngunnawal country and, in doing so, I continue a cultural practice that has been passed down the generations.

Today I welcome you to the land of my ancestors. I honour my elders past and present, and most especially my Dad’s memory. Welcome, and travel safely following songlines that have stood for thousands of years. Welcome to Ngunnawal country. [applause]

DAVID ARNOLD: I am tempted to say let’s thank the wonderfully young Jude Barlow again – fabulously young. [applause] Now it’s my pleasure to introduce Brian Doolan, and Brian will then introduce the rest of the program for this afternoon. Thank you, Brian.

BRIAN DOOLAN: Thank you, David, and especially on behalf of all of us, thank you Jude. That was absolutely beautiful and a real privilege to be welcomed so warmly. Thank you to all of you for coming today to mark what is the 40th anniversary of the commencement of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, because it is on this day in 1976 in Port Augusta, South Australia that Fred and the program team set out on that remarkable journey. Their aim was to eliminate trachoma and other harmful eye conditions in rural and remote communities and, for the first time, to record the status of eye health in rural and remote Australia. The program teams that went out consisted of nurses, orthoptists, Aboriginal liaison officers, field receptionists, ophthalmologists, many of whom were volunteers – and all of whom worked tirelessly to achieve the aim.

I would like to extend a very special welcome to the team members who are here today and some of whom are now just joining us. I know they would all agree that the initiative of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program was truly groundbreaking. It was an initiative that made a significant contribution to changing the boundaries of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health service delivery, and it set the benchmark for community engagement and community empowerment.

This afternoon we will have the privilege of hearing from four members of the program: from Gabi Hollows who was only 22 when she started to work as an orthoptist on the program; from Trevor Buzzacott, the program’s senior Aboriginal liaison officer; from Rose Murray, a field receptionist on the program; and from Gordon Briscoe, the assistant director of the program. In a moment I will be privileged to sit down with Gabi, Trevor, Rose and Gordon to discuss their experiences on the program, the ongoing impact of the program and their relationship with Fred, and also to discuss the current state of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health.

Before I do, I would like to welcome Michael Loebenstein, the CEO of the National Film and Sound Archive, to say a few words and to introduce the film screening for today’s reception. [applause]

MICHAEL LOEBENSTEIN: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It’s an honour for the National Film and Sound Archive to be involved in this afternoon and in this celebration of 40 years of this amazing program. Remembering Fred Hollows also means to be in the privileged position not only to remember a great man and his work and his ongoing impact on Indigenous health and generally the awareness for the absolutely appalling gap in health and wellbeing that Australia was facing when he commenced the program, and is still facing in many regards, but it also means being able due to technologies of film and recorded sound actually to see and to hear the man on screen this afternoon.

It is a great privilege for us to be involved here and to be the custodian of a film called They used to call it Sandy Blight, which is a 46–minute documentary produced in 1977 and broadcast in 1978 on the ABC about the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. Everything that Brian talked about in his introduction – the field teams going out, the screening programs, the surgery performed and the empowerment of community, of nurses and of community members in regard to their health and wellbeing, all of that is captured in some way or other on film.

Just to give you a little bit of background about what that actually means in terms of our national heritage and our national audiovisual memory. This documentary was produced by an independent production company called Nomad Films International by Douglas Stanley, who was the producer and director, a cinematographer, Alex McPhee, and two sound recordists who travelled with the program for a period of a couple of weeks through locations such as – just to give you a couple of locations – Alice Springs, Lajamanu settlement, Delissaville, Wattie Creek, Bathurst Island, Doomadgee, and Wilcannia Reserve. In the excerpt we are going to show you, you are going to see a couple of those locations.

In 2015, the Fred Hollows Foundation contacted the National Film and Sound Archive and said, ‘There are audiovisual materials in our possession. Would you be interested in them? Is there something that is of national significance?’ When our curators worked with the Fred Hollows Foundation to go through these boxes of films, we identified four cans of 16-millimetre film elements, negatives, inter-negatives and something that we hoped was a final sound mix. Now that we are all looking at films on our computers and on smart phones, go back in time to when films were actually on film reels and the sound was separately on a magnetic reel and the magnetic reel is the real show. Anyway it turned out that there was no sound unfortunately on the sound reel, but our technicians were able to actually source the last remaining copy of a soundtrack that they could find and actually for the first time since the 1970s put this film back together.

As a result of the collaboration between the Fred Hollows Foundation and the very generous donation to the national collection of these film elements, this film is actually available to audiences again in a quality that it was never ever seen and will be available on YouTube [http://bit.ly/sandyblight] from today for all audiences in Australia and worldwide to see in its full duration. That is something we are incredibly proud about. [applause]

You will appreciate, and I see the great Ray Martin here in the first row, who knows very well what it means actually not in 1977 but only 18 months ago, to go into Aboriginal communities and actually film there and actually see first hand what it means to look after country and what it means to look after health under sometimes very difficult conditions.

You will appreciate that bringing a film crew along was not making Fred Hollows and his team’s life any easier. You will see some of the people who are present here in the excerpts from the film. There are two anecdotes I would like to share with you in the course of the research of the film. One is the cinematographer Alex McPhee saying that he didn’t want to intrude too much and basically kept asking Fred Hollows, ‘Professor, where do I put the camera?’ He said, ‘Boy, just put it wherever it has the best impact, wherever you get the best shot. We will work around you,’ which was incredibly generous. I think Fred Hollows was really conscious of how important it is to capture all of that on film and not just shoot something that glosses over people’s lives. When you watch the 46 minute version, this is a film about people in community and is about a film about doctors and nurses actually going out and empowering the community. You do see living conditions in a very candid but never in any way exploitative style. There is a great eye for details and a great respect for people. I always love little details like the camera when the kids line up for their screening. What the cameraman could easily do is just film down on them. But the cameraman doesn’t film down on them, you film the kids from their eye level because this is about respect and the film can express that respect without any words. It is a visual medium first and foremost.

It didn’t have an easy life, that film. There were attempts to ban it in 1978. It’s a fairly long and drawn-out story involving the sponsor of the program. The director general of health trying to assert control over the film writing to both Professor Hollows as well as to Nomad Film basically saying, ‘This film should either be censored or not shown at all.’ The Commonwealth Department of Health and other federal government ministers feared that international tourism to the Northern Territory would take a hit if people actually saw the living conditions in Aboriginal settlements and Torres Strait Islander communities. Eventually – and this is the great thing about public broadcast – the film was broadcast and now it is in the public archive for all Australians to see.

One last story before I leave you with 11 minutes from the film, 11 minutes that we chose to give you a bit of an overview of the tone of the film and some of the locations. It goes back to what David said about the climbing helmet and lucky socks. The cinematographer also recalls when they went up on a hill to shoot down into a valley, which is a shot you can see at the beginning of this [excerpt]. It took them ages to actually clamber up there in the heat and set up the camera and film. When they were done, they heard somebody approach and it was Fred Hollows who brought a six pack of cold beer up and basically said, ‘Boys, I think you might be thirsty at this stage.’ They went: this took us ages to get up here, how did he come up? He climbed up. I think it’s a great story that brings the personal life of the man and the mission and the work and the legacy together.

We are honoured to play our part in this. Please enjoy the 11-minute excerpt. Spread the word: tweet, talk to people about the full version on YouTube and the work that we are doing at the National Film and Sound Archive. Thank you very much and enjoy the excerpts.

[Film plays.]

They were to see the young and the old. In fact, everybody likely to be affected by trachoma. It was the most ambitious and specific health program ever sponsored by a medical college. In two years, the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program was to send eye specialists from the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists thousands of miles around Australia. Their task was to find out how much trachoma existed and start treatment programs. With $1.5 million from the Australian government, the trachoma program got under way in February 1976.

Most of the travelling was by car which took the field teams over some of the roughest and most beautiful country in Australia. The main advantage of four wheels was that the teams were able to make direct contact with hundreds of isolated Aboriginal camps in the centre and far north of the country.

The two field teams each consisted of two eye doctors, an orthoptist and assistant, a nursing sister, a microbiologist, an optical dispenser and a field clerk. Approximately half the team members were Aboriginal.

The permanent team was led by Professor Fred Hollows. During the two years of the trachoma program he was assisted by visiting eye specialists who volunteered two or three weeks of their time to work with him screening Aborigines and recommending follow–up treatment.

As their work progressed, the need for the program became apparent to everyone involved.

‘The hard facts are that in an affluent country like this, there are incredible pockets of poverty and disease including eye disease, as anybody who looks hard or even superficially at the Aboriginal scene will see.’

According to Professor Hollows, the real cure for black health problems lies in establishing better communication with Aborigines. What must be remembered is that throughout Australia 150 separate Aboriginal languages are still spoken, and there are more than 600 distinct dialects. For this reason, the trachoma teams arranged for Aboriginal field officers to travel in advance of them and explain the program and consult with the local people. In this way Aborigines were able to fully understand how the trachoma program could benefit them and their children.

‘If you would like to go and see them in the CWA clinic, CWA rest room, you go at 3 o’clock.’ ‘Oh yes’. ‘If you haven’t got a way of going up, I’ll call in and pick you up.’ ‘Right oh, then.’

In the isolated areas of Australia, Aborigines are offered health care through clinics like this one at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory. Like most outback clinics, it’s run by white nursing sisters. Here the Aboriginal nursing aids are trained to give very basic health care to their own people. They are luckier than other Aboriginal nurses in the outback. Many are nothing more than glorified cleaning ladies only being asked to sweep and clean the floors of the clinic.

The people associated with black health care say it’s a situation which has to change as soon as possible for if Aborigines are to learn the rules for dealing with their environmental diseases, such as the eye, ear, nose and throat infections, then clinics must eventually be run by Aboriginal nursing sisters. Only when Aborigines become totally involved in their own community health programs at all levels will Aboriginal health standards be lifted. This is a view shared by all members of the trachoma program.

‘Hygiene and individual health care requires several things. It requires that people care and it requires that people be involved in the process. This is why it’s perfectly natural and there are very good sociological or medico-sociological reasons for having community-based health care services in our Aboriginal groups. They should be calling the shots, hiring and firing resource personnel of any race and they should be deciding policy. Only when this occurs will environmental health diseases amongst Aborigines be significantly lessened.’

Just west of Darwin is Delissaville, an Aboriginal settlement of 181 people, 36 of whom are white. On the verandah of the clinic the trachoma team follow a well-established routine. It begins with everyone providing basic information about themselves.

‘What’s your name?’ ‘And how old are you?’ ‘Six years old’.

This information, when collated with medical reports, will eventually provide one of the most comprehensive studies of outback health care.

‘Jessie, cover up this eye first, that’s the way. Which way does this one go? Good.’

Next a vision test, a simple one using just the letter E, which only requires the person taking the test to indicate the way it’s facing.

‘Can’t see it? What about this one?’

This woman being examined by an eye doctor was one of 36 Aborigines who required further medical eye care. None of the white people at Delissaville were found to have any eye problems.

‘It’s all white so it’s a head injury and very small and soft and it’s all damaged. This one might have a cataract. I will have to have a closer look later.’

‘I might give him a little dressing on that, you know, Gabi. I think I could just about do it. ‘Hold it there, Sid. Stay there. I’m just putting a little bandage on. Three times around the top, that is the scaffold on which your bandage hangs.’

Within a few days the bandage will be removed, and the pain and discomfort this man has suffered for a long time will have disappeared – a positive solution in minutes for an eye infection which existed far too long.

With the Queensland part of the program postponed, the field teams moved into New South Wales to places like Wilcannia Reserve which accommodates some 300 Aborigines. Their housing is far from conventional but not from choice – it’s all there is. Conditions like these make it difficult if not impossible to maintain a reasonable standard of hygiene, but providing better housing along European lines is not necessarily the answer for Aboriginal reserves such as Wilcannia.

‘It’s not necessarily a question of housing; it’s a matter of achieving utilisation of certain health amenities. For instance, in this place where we are sitting, there is about 300 people living here and I believe – I haven’t done a precise count – but I don’t think there is more than four taps over this 200 acres. In no way in the world can these people utilise the approximately 20 gallons of water that each person needs to utilise to be healthy in terms of hygiene in a hot climate like this.’

With the examinations over, it was an opportunity for the director of the trachoma program to meet the island’s [Bathurst Island] nursing aides and explain what trachoma is and how to look for the obvious signs.

‘Can you see these little white things here? Can you all see those? Yes. They are little follicles, little trachoma. You see these in the children. That’s why we’re looking at all the school kids and you can see those. Next one please – can you can see the white dots? It’s very easy to see trachoma follicles. They are still only grade one follicles.’

‘Now see this one, you can see all the follicles here, and this kid has got a lot of follicles and they would be follicles grade three. You can see this child almost looks balanda, doesn’t he? It almost looks as though he’s white. He’s a part Aboriginal person, but you don’t have to be an Aborigine to have this disease, anybody can get it. A lot of white people have had it and a lot of white people used to have it. Before people had houses and a lot of these good things that you’ve got here in Bathurst Island, they used to have a lot of these problems. Give us the next one, Anna. That’s a ring-in, that slide. Go on.’

‘Can you see? Come up here, Juanita. Can you see those little red dots all over the place? Can you all see that? Yes. The tiny little red dots, they are called pupilli. You can’t see the dots there but you will see those on that. That’s another sign of trachoma. I always say a blind man on a galloping horse on a dark night without a light could diagnose trachoma. It’s an easy condition to diagnose.’

The success of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program was due in no small part to the communication that the field teams established between themselves and the Aboriginal groups and communities. Many people believed that Aborigines do not care about themselves or their health standards. But they are a people who care very much and want to be involved at all levels in controlling their health. But achieving that aim has never been easy for them.

Trachoma was the main aim of the program, and it’s slowly being eliminated. So, too, are the other serious environmental health diseases of poor hygiene, housing, diet and lack of community involvement. They are all problems born of the squalor and poverty of the Aboriginal camps which exist on the fringes of a more affluent Australia. But the ground rules are very clear: the ongoing health treatment program must continue while communication and Aboriginal involvement must be improved. Only then can their health and their pride and dignity as a people be restored.

[end of film] [applause]

BRIAN DOOLAN: I think you will agree that was a real privilege to be able to see that footage again. Thank you so much to the National Film and Sound Archive for recognising the significance of the footage as part of Australia’s history and for their dedication in preserving it and putting together that insightful and very moving piece.

I would like now to welcome four very special people to join us up here on the podium. I am talking, of course, about Gabi Hollows, Trevor Buzzacott, Rose Murray and Gordon Briscoe. As they make their way up, I will tell you a little bit more about them.

Gabi Hollows is known as one of Australia’s national living treasures. She’s an Order of Australia recipient, a skilled orthoptist and a founding director of the Fred Hollows Foundation. Gabi’s unwavering dedication to the foundation that she and Fred and Michael Johnson and a whole bunch of friends founded together has been absolutely remarkable. It’s resulted in more than two million people around the world having their sight restored. Gabi’s work with her friends meant that people around the world were given chances that Fred would have said they didn’t just deserve, it was their right.

Trevor Buzzacott has worked extensively at all levels of government in Aboriginal health and well-being, social justice and community housing. He was raised on Arabunna land and currently works as community liaison officer at the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion in South Australia. Trevor speaks multiple Aboriginal languages and dialects and is the co–author of the book Beyond Sandy Blight.

Rose Murray is a Nyangumarta woman who also has Kartujarra heritage. Rose has been a founding member of many Aboriginal and non-government agencies in the Pilbara and a co-author of Beyond Sandy Blight. Rose likes to gather stories, create paintings and work towards social justice. One of her strongest beliefs is that Aboriginal people have contributed significantly to Western Australia and continue to do so in so many ways.

And Gordon Briscoe has been a longtime activist in Aboriginal affairs. He worked as a field officer for the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs and then for the Redfern Aboriginal Legal Service, and he helped establish the Redfern Aboriginal Health Service in 1971. After completing his PhD in 1977, Gordon became a research fellow at the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University. Gordon is an academic, an historian, a published author and an honorary visiting fellow at AIATSIS. In 2005 he was awarded an Order of Australia medal for his longstanding service to Indigenous health, legal services and education.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our very special guests.

It’s an absolute pleasure and an honour to be sitting up here with you. What we have done is we have pre-warned our special guests about some questions we are going to ask them and we have said to them can you keep your answers to about three minutes. Of course, the first thing Gordon said to me today was, ‘Mate, there is no way I’m going to keep this to three minutes,’ but we will see how we go.

Gordon, we would like to start with you. Can you tell us a little bit about your own relationship with Fred and about how the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program got started?

GORDON BRISCOE: Yes, it’s a great pleasure to talk about Fred. I know he’s gunmarra but still he’s with us. My relationship with Fred is a twofold relationship: before Gabi and after Gabi. Before Gabi it was teaching Fred about Aboriginal affairs. Fred came from England, from New Zealand. He was born in a Christian family, took divinity in New Zealand and then became a GP, went to England and took a specialty in ophthalmology with the great people in England fixing eyes after the reign of fascism.

When he got here, I met him at a meeting I had called to start a free Aboriginal Medical Service in Redfern. He was late and belligerent in many ways. I started to tell him about the problems that Aborigines were having in Redfern, but he didn’t want to hear that. He said, ‘You blokes don’t need a free service. You’ve got everything here.’ I said, ‘Fred, you’re living through a huge migration of Aborigines. We just got our citizenship in 1969 and here you are telling us that we don’t need it. A lot of these people that you are thinking about now who call themselves Aborigines have been oppressed since 1907 when they were taken from the bush, put in compounds and left to rot. We started a big program to get citizenship, and you are just here at the end when the big migration was on. When a lot of people got their freedom, they came to Sydney. And all you people who saw the fires and the problems that Aborigines were having in Sydney was there, it’s part of your history.’ But it wasn’t Fred’s history because he was just finding out about people living in dire poverty, in sheer problems of the neglect by the systems used as part of your systems that you were owed by the governments that also were supposed to have looked after Aborigines. But the kind of things you saw there was just the tail end of what Fred was looking at.

So he said, ‘You people don’t have problems.’ I said, ‘Fred, if we want general practitioner services, the ones that you have and the ones that your people have, you are looking at something that Aborigines can’t have. If they want to go and get a health service, they have to go around the back of the hospital to get a service.’ This is what his attitude was. That was what I confronted when he came to this meeting in Sydney.

But it wasn’t long before he started to understand because Fred was also a Christian but he was a Communist as well so he had a great social perspective of what people were like living under oppression. He brought a young ophthalmologist, one of his students, to the meeting and he said, ‘We will start the service. We will bring the drugs in and we will bring the doctors in and the nurses. And you’ve got to bring the Aborigines in.’ This guy from South Sydney aid said, ‘Look, we will help you provide a room across the road.’ So things were happening. The nurses opened the doors the following day and the following night the doctors came in. Fred was there at the first opening and he had boxes of antibiotics and a few other things, probably a few cough mixtures and those sorts of things as well. Anyway, that’s my first meeting with Fred.

BRIAN DOOLAN: You were in many ways Fred’s tutor, weren’t you? You were the guy that kind of led him into this area.

GORDON BRISCOE: By the nose, that’s right, because he didn’t know that there were so many blackfellas in Redfern. A couple of nights later he was giving lectures on eye health care and he was being ribbed by these young blackfellas. That’s the way Fred started. The Aboriginal Medical Service was the starting point in which Fred started to get his knowledge about people living under oppression to work. The great outcome of the trachoma program was the fact that, everywhere we went, there were new Aboriginal legal services starting up. If they weren’t starting up then, they were going to start up very soon after he was there.

I remember going up to meet him at Broome and something I never thought would happen. Fred introduced me to the bishop. Fred appointed the bishop as the president of the Aboriginal Medical Service in Broome about a year later. Anyway, that’s my relationship with Fred.

I was always looking for new things to stimulate Fred. I didn’t have a political party; I didn’t have any money; I only had this white bloke who did have money and a big mouth. When I got to Aprawataja in the northern area of South Australia, I said, ‘What about the eyes?’ He said, ‘I have this committee here. It’s called the Pitjantjatjara legal medical service.’ He was such a great bloke –

BRIAN DOOLAN: He lived up to his promise –

GORDON BRISCOE: I haven’t finished. He rang me one night and he said, ‘Briscoe, what are you doing? I’ve got a clinic here, and nobody is coming there.’ I said, ‘What’s wrong, Fred? Haven’t you done any work? Where’s Buzzacott?’ Fred said, ‘He’s gone to Queensland, and here I am up here. I’ve got a clinic with no blackfellas coming there.’ I said, ‘All right, I will get on a plane and come and help you organise it.’ So I went up to Alice Springs, and Fred was there and he shoved me and pushed me in the car. I said, ‘What’s the hurry, Fred?’ He said, ‘I’m going to get this clinic going out at the Pit [Pitjantjatjara] lands.’ I said, ‘That’s all right, we will fix things up. Go down here.’ He’s driving his car – go down here, go down there – and he dropped me at the TAB. He said, ‘You bastard, what are you doing there? I got you up to help us run this clinic.’ I said, ‘Don’t you worry, Fred.’

He said, ‘What are you here wasting my time going into the TAB?’ I said, ‘This is where my mob are. I’ve got to talk to my mob. They’re going to tell me what to do. You are a barbarian, Fred, you don’t know these things. I will see you tomorrow in the creek, and we will talk about what my people, Martjantjarra, what they are going to listen to, okay?’

Next day I got him in the creek and said, ‘Fred, you’ve got to talk to the people. You really have to talk to the people, and you have to talk to them here in Alice Springs because they are all their relatives out there. You have to talk to them and find out how you have to deal with people; they’ve got a life of their own.’ I sent Fred out with one of my relatives to the Pit lands and they got him and took him out bush. They painted him up in red ochre and they took him right out, way out. They then brought out their sacred objects; they put them down; they sang the stories to him; and they made Fred stand there and listen to them about their stories and what those objects meant to them. It changed his life. He was a different man. He went from a barbarian to a blackfella, and that’s my relationship with Fred. He’s my Tjamu; he’s my brother. [applause]

BRIAN DOOLAN: So Gabi, if we can turn to you, as a young non-Indigenous woman. What was your experience of travelling all over the country and going to these communities with Fred?

GABI HOLLOWS: I was so, so lucky. I had these guys with me; I had Fred; we had so many amazing people that came out in the bush with us; and I met the most beautiful First Australians. We had the best, best time. That was just a tiny tinge of it, some of that footage you saw. When you are on the road pretty much full-time for three years, if every story could be told and I am looking at Jack, Jack Waterford, here – everyone knows that Jack tells some pretty good stories. All the people that worked with us that we employed, that we gave the opportunity to just have a little bit of time helping us to gather people, and the patients that we saw was just amazing. I was just so honoured to have been invited to have done that. It absolutely changed my life, as you know, and the rest is pretty much history. But it was such an honour.

We went everywhere, places that no-one has ever thought of or had been to before, and some of those places don’t exist anymore. I am looking at a lot of people here who have been to a lot of places with us, some of our team. It was extraordinary that they were being delivered first-class ophthalmology in the remotest parts of Australia, because we had over 80 ophthalmologists who volunteered from the Royal Australian College of Ophthalmologists. We were very lucky.

At the time when Fred was talking about going and looking at and studying trachoma. He had studied, today as I said in an interview, with Archie Cochrane in the UK, who was the founder of the Cochrane Institute in the UK, which is the most famous epidemiological unit in the world pretty much. Fred learnt no survey without service. So we delivered a really good service. We didn’t just measure people and do a record; we actually gave them really first-class treatment and followed it up and followed it up. I am looking at Susan there who made sure the actions happened and the surgical programs happened. And Jeff over there from OPSM, and all those glasses we promised people. Everything that we said we were going to do for people they got to them. I think that was an amazing achievement.

When they were first talking about trachoma, the federal Australian government was very generous and he said, ‘I don’t want the money to come to me. I want it to go to my department. I want it to go into my college and my collegiate to help me do it.’ [Through] the extraordinary amount of support that was given to us by both sides of government, by the media and by everybody listening to what that story was, we got around and opened so many doors.

There is a little plaque on the bottom of Fred’s grave, which was written by a friend of mine, Bruce Walker who is a poet, which said, ‘The key that Fred used to unlock doors was vision for the poor.’ And that followed on everywhere else we went. We were so lucky but we couldn’t have done it without good liaison and without good people up front. It’s just so important that you have affinity with people and you have to feel that the people can feel comfortable with you. I think that’s what our team did. We had a great ability to do it the right way.

BRIAN DOOLAN: Clearly a whole lot of the success was due to the Aboriginal people that participated in this –

GABI HOLLOWS: Absolutely.

BRIAN DOOLAN: And one of them, of course, was Trevor as a liaison officer. Trev, what was your role as a liaison officer on the program?

TREVOR BUZZACOTT: I think I was the lucky one. I spent a lot of time in front of the team and organising all the work so that I didn’t have to spend all that time with Fred. But along the way I think the whole team in itself has to be given a pat on the back really, and all the ophthalmologists that were with us …

GABI HOLLOWS: For weeks at a time, yes.

TREVOR BUZZACOTT: … on a rostered system. We had to pick them up; we had to drop them off; we had to give them an hour rapid session in cultural awareness in terms of what do you do in Aboriginal communities. The ophthalmologists that we were talking about may have come from one of the bigger cities and the office is like this with E minor flat music with carpet floors and those sorts of things. You have seen the evidence of where our Aboriginal communities were living, so that sort of thing we had to change.

None of the ophthalmologists that worked with us for that period have done anything out of place. It’s amazing. It’s a remarkable feat that, for that whole period over the 460-plus communities that we seen in WA, SA, NT and northern Queensland and northern New South Wales, we actually nailed every program, every community that we saw and we made sure that the community was engaged all the way along. The employment of Aboriginal people there all the way along, that was probably one of the critical parts in the partnerships that allows us to be here today and say, ‘Yes, Fred, we remember you and we are going to continue with your work.’ With everybody here seeing that, that’s a huge big plus, a big bonus for all the work that was done from 40 years ago to where we are now.

One of the critical things at the first clinic we ran at Port Augusta –

GABI HOLLOWS: Davenport.

TREVOR BUZZACOTT: It was at Davenport but I was the only the Aboriginal person there that worked in Aboriginal community in the remote areas. The whole team really brought together – we had not worked together before, a lot of them had not worked in remote Aboriginal communities before. Gabi, you’d remember your first situation when you was at Indulkana.

GABI HOLLOWS: Yes.

TREVOR BUZZACOTT: I am not going to talk about that one. I ended up playing Aussie rules and winning in the premiership side in Alice Springs as well. It was part of the liaison program that I was involved in. Just going on from what Gordon was saying was that the engagement of our Aboriginal custodians in those areas – Wadi Ngunkuris, Wadi Tjilpis – was so critical. They are the guys that opened the doors so that we could go and visit all the Aboriginal communities not only in northern parts of South Australia but the western goldfields, Merchants in the Pilbara, Kimberleys, right throughout Warlpiri country, Pintupi-Luritja – all those remote areas, and the employment of Aboriginal people was just essential along the way.

To see Fred work in those communities and watch how he changed over the years his demeanour and the way in which he would speak to people, I still remember it quite clearly now. It’s one of those really remarkable things that we as a team all looked at. Everyone looked at that. We noticed the way in which that was happening. We also noticed the continual engagement with our elders in the communities and the children – they all become part of the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. A lot of the liaison work was actually done by the people on the ground because the product that we was providing – fixing fixable eye care problems – with our professional team at the time, and that is 40 years ago, it is still remarkable.

BRIAN DOOLAN: Absolutely.

GABI HOLLOWS: We saw a lot of non-Indigenous people too. Just out in the bush we saw so many beautiful rural Australians that really were just as needy as well. They would line up with everyone. We lined up thousands and thousands of people.

BRIAN DOOLAN: We are going to give people here in a minute the chance to ask you questions directly. But before we do, Rose, can we hear from you about how did you get involved in the program? What were some of your experiences in those years?

ROSE MURRAY: I was living in Melbourne at the time. Even though I had been born in the west, we’d come over from Perth really just to escape racism in Perth and we settled in and around Melbourne. I was very fortunate that my Mum really believed in education and she made me stay at school and I did year 12. I was maybe one of a handful of Aboriginal young people that had done year 12 at that time. So therefore I was able to get a public service job. The Department of Labour was looking at employing Aboriginal people, which was quite revolutionary in those days, and I was probably the second person that they employed nationally. I worked in the Aboriginal employment section of the Melbourne office, and this job came through they wanted promoted out in the Aboriginal community. ‘Hello,’ I said to myself, ‘this looks interesting.’ My husband Reg Murray and I had not long ago done a trip around Australia. They were looking for a field clerk and possibly other people to help with the program, and we applied. I advertised it for other people of course.

Fred rocks up one day and we thought: What a funny bloke. Where’s he come from? It was really interesting because we were Melbourne people. We didn’t know about his reputation or the work that he’d done or what people had educated him about Aboriginal health. I talked to my Mum about it and said, ‘This is going to be a big change if we get it.’ My Mum was a Stolen Generation person and we knew we were going to go all around Australia so, we tried really hard to get these jobs because I knew that we’d find my Mum’s family, and we did. Reg is a very good bush mechanic and a very good bushman. So I knew that we’d be safe, because this (Fred) was a city bloke and god knows what was going to happen. It was a big program and it was revolutionary. I thought, ‘Oh well, Rego is there. No matter what, he will get us out of trouble!’ And sure enough, he certainly always did.

Now for me as a city person it was a big cultural shock going to remote areas and to regional areas as well. But Reg had come from New South Wales, from Balranald, and had lived on the land. If there was no food, you hunt, you fish. If things break down, you fix them. So he had that really solid background. I guess what I had was that I had a good solid white fella education; I had the experience of my Mum’s stolen generation living with me and that burning desire to find out who my family was and make a contribution to community.

Fred’s political education to me made a big difference in my life. I had already been very active as a teenager in Melbourne but he added to what I knew because he explained about some of the world stuff. He explained about what was happening in South America. He explained what epidemiology was. What we always did was we worked with respect. He showed, and we did work with respect like contacting all the right people and, what’s more, leaving stuff behind and explaining what we found. That was revolutionary. For many, many years, white Australia – let me assure you – did not pick that up. We still have to fight the fight in research and in health research for Aboriginal people to be involved, working towards it, to be guiding these things and participating as researchers. It was a hard and wonderful time.

GORDON BRISCOE: Stand up, Jilpia. Kangkuru. That’s your sister there. This lady found her mother when she went out with the program. She was out there out bush, and they met each other. That’s one thing, and this one here met her mother when she went out there for the first time. She hadn’t seen her since she was a Tjitji, a little baby.

That’s how significant the program was to their lives – fantastic.

ROSE MURRAY: On a personal level, lots of wonderful things happened.

Jilpia did get to reunite with her mother. And I managed to bring my mother home to her family, so she got to meet her sister and brothers at, Yandeyarra and Strelley and that was an extraordinary thing after 40 years. [applause]

GORDON BRISCOE: The end of oppression.

BRIAN DOOLAN: I wonder if anyone in the audience has question or wants to ask something of one of these four marvellous people. [No questions] That’s made it easy. We can go back to Gordon. Let me ask the four of you: what’s the lesson from the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, what’s the one lesson you would say we still need to hear today? I mean, it achieved enormous things – what’s the big lesson?

GORDON BRISCOE: There is a report called the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. Sure it was a good deed from the college of ophthalmologists but it was Fred who put the heat on them to make them responsible for all the things that they claimed they are and they were, and sure we still say that they were great. The other thing about that report was that Fred highlighted the fact that you just can’t recognise Aboriginal people as a people and give them citizenship without also providing the cornerstone for equality. And that’s everything – not just health services but everything.

What still hangs over the top of that is that, when you put letters to words, the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program highlighted trachoma as a significant illness, and Fred brought the ophthalmologists right to the feet of an oppressed people that they just didn’t even think about before. But they did that. Then there’s still this question of how you control the infection. Not just provide eye health at the foot of the ophthalmologists or the nurses or the orthoptists, but the infection is still there. The government is moving away from providing legal services, providing health services and highlighting the history of that oppression. This is the start of it. This is getting the source material to the intelligentsia so that it can go on. That’s that film. That’s in clear words. But the infection is still there otherwise they wouldn’t still be catching and living in filth and squalor. You have to say: whose responsibility is that? The governments that you keep in power.

BRIAN DOOLAN: Anybody else want to make a comment on the big lessons we still need to hear?

TREVOR BUZZACOTT: One of the things I recall clearly is the number of Aboriginal medical services that we actually initiated and established along the way. Our first one, of course, being a phone call to Naomi in Redfern back in May 1976 when we had finished the clinic at Port Augusta when it was Fred saying, ‘Naomi, get your butt over here, we need a doctor here to set up our first Aboriginal medical services in South Australia at the time.’ That was the first one there. The Pika Wiya Aboriginal Medical Service that is currently there now. Along the way also there is Nganampa Health in the APY Lands, Geraldton Medical Services and Broome. There was quite a number of those initiatives that came about by, I guess, the whole involvement of National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, the professionalism from the ophthalmologists and medical side of it, working alongside of and with the Aboriginal community to make sure that those upgrade of health and eye care services continues. We still have a long way to go as yet. That’s probably why people like us here, we are not going to give in. We will be here tomorrow and we will still ask those questions – How can we improve those health services in those remote areas? What do we need to do? We’re not going to give up; we’re going to still keep going.

ROSE MURRAY: My thought is that racism and prejudice is alive and well in Australia and that that really does affect all of us. We need to fight that fight all the time. The way that we fight that fight is through education of self, education of our families and education of our workplaces. When we travelled, we saw some of the most skilled Aboriginal health workers that we had ever seen and some of the most downtrodden Aboriginal health workers – very, very big difference. When those Aboriginal health workers have the support of those senior medicos and were respected both culturally and intellectually, they did very well and could really do a good service for their mob. We need to create those situations, support those health workers and look at ourselves and look at our policies and things like that to make those workplaces really make a big difference to Aboriginal health.

BRIAN DOOLAN: Thanks, Rose. Gabi, did you want to comment?

GABI HOLLOWS: Trevor just whispered in my ear about the actual catch-up we did in those early days of the 1970s of the trachoma program where we had some very big surgical interventions. They liked to use the word ‘blitz’ but I hate that word. We gathered people together from some of the very remote areas. The first one we actually had, we wanted to have the surgery in Alice Springs hospital and all the bureaucrats said, ‘Oh no, no,’ you can’t get our sheets dirty basically. He said, ‘Well I will stick it up their noses and we will stick the tents in the car park of the hospital.’ Jack is laughing there. The very big first surgical expedition we had was actually in Amata, which was down in the Pitjantjatjara lands, and then we had other ones at Utopia and then followed on through into the territory up to Katherine. A lot of follow-up was done and they are still being done today. We are not with the army now but we have some excellent surgery that happens in Central Australia and in other states we have some excellent ophthalmologists follow through with that catch-up and that surgery. Some amazing work that is still being down through Fred’s department at Prince of Wales from the Outback Eye Service. Professor Minas Coroneo, still to this day gives the most wonderful training to his young registrars who go out there.

Hugh Taylor who worked with us on the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, Hugh unfortunately couldn’t be here today, it clashed with his dates. Hugh has always said on his watch we still have active trachoma in Australia. He is now very involved with the University of Melbourne doing a lot of catch-up and follow-up on the trachoma work in Australia. The foundation has a very big Indigenous program that is based in Darwin. We are doing some wonderful work in Central Australia, in the top end of the Northern Territory and in parts of Western Australia. That also still happens in western New South Wales.

One of the things I think that Fred would have been so excited about is that in those days when we were working 40 years ago we didn’t even have one Aboriginal medical graduate. There were no Aboriginal kids going to university; there was none doing any nursing; there was none doing medicine. I always remember Fred, when he first met his Mick Miller’s daughter Lydia, said, ‘I want you to be the first Aboriginal doctor.’ She actually ended up in film, but seriously today I don’t know what the stats are at the moment – 240 something – 240 medical Aboriginal graduates is a wonderful achievement. But if you think of that in only 40 years it is not very many people really. We are just sort of on the way to getting a few Aboriginal graduates involved in specialties in ENT, ophthalmology and a few other parts where there are some Aboriginal people who have specialised in areas. That is a big change, but it’s taken 40 years to do that. I think that’s pretty slow.

One of the things that I think we have done is that in many of those communities we have had the opportunity for those communities to trust and know we absolutely mean what we say we are doing to do. Fred’s name has been associated with good things. That is what has been the success of the Fred Hollows Foundation, because they knew that Fred was fair dinkum about it.

I always say that one of the things that happened quite close to when Fred was given that wonderful accolade of being named Australian of the Year and the Foundation was being set up in his name, one of the doctors, John Cooper, who helped us in those early days said that people just knew that if we wanted some of this funded, we couldn’t do it without the community, without people funding us and giving us some money to do it as well as our grants that we got from the government. John said, ‘People just knew that if they gave Fred the money, we would spend it tomorrow.’ I always say, ‘Well we spent it yesterday, so if you want to give us a little bit more, it will help.’

My job has been to thank people – seriously – the community has been involved; the interest like we have Ray Martin here, the media. There has been so much goodwill associated with Fred’s name. That is why The Fred Hollows Foundation is now successful internationally. But a big part of our work we do is still in Aboriginal health in Australia. Professor Paul Torzillo is very involved in the hardware for health. Embodying people and employing people and engaging people in their own self-development is – if you don’t own it, then you can’t do it – and as Rose said, it has to be coming from the people themselves. That’s the best thing that Fred was so good at giving that confidence to people to be able to get up and do their own thing and give people that opportunity to excel in what they were good at in all sorts of development. Looking at Michael Johnson who is professor of international development here, there are so many other parts of Fred that he was so incredibly inspiring to people to think about doing things a different way.

We have come a long way in 40 years but we still have a long way to catch up. I have always said – and I used to get in trouble for saying this. Mike Lynskey who was our CEO for 14 years and in fact helped set up the Film and Sound Archive here in Australia, and Mike apologised for not being able to be here today. I always say it’s a bit like doing the washing up or my laundry pile, you just get through a whole lot of stuff and you have to start all over again. You have new mums, new doctors, new teachers, new nurses, new communities, new peoples, new little kids – you have to keep at it all the time at the coalface chipping away at it. And not just remeasuring it but revisiting all the time. You have to keep looking. And if you don’t clean it up as you go along, it is not ever going to get better. It is getting better and better.

And our trachoma story was a story that in the Middle Ages in places as people’s homes and hygiene has improved that happened. Australia, and I can see Jack [Waterford] shaking his head here, we still have a long way to go about closing that gap but we just have to be committed to do that. There has been some great stuff and some great stories. Unfortunately we don’t hear all the good stories and sometimes we don’t hear the bad stories. This story on this footage here was giving people a little dose of that, that they had never ever had the opportunity to be exposed to before.

When we first went to some of these communities and Jack literally put on the front of everyone’s morning tea the story about some of the communities we went to, the cattle and the stock were treated better than the communities in those places. Jack had basically said, and Fred had said, if this was in animals we would have the RSPCA being called in to complain about this. As Fred said there were only four taps to that community in Wilcannia. In some places we went to the cattle and the stock had reticulated water whereas the Aboriginal people had a bit of corrugated iron stuck in the creek bed as a soak.

GORDON BRISCOE: What about the big run from Melbourne to Sydney? What about this woman here who ran from Melbourne to Sydney just to raise a few bob. [applause] Who has run from Melbourne to Sydney to raise money? Here we have evidence.

GABI HOLLOWS: She has still been running today, but we had a relay of ten women that raised $25,000 for the Aboriginal medical service in 1979.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: It funded a medical service. I never knew which one.

GABI HOLLOWS: We had a relay of ten women that did that a long time ago. People weren’t able to participate. People would say they didn’t know how to help. There were so many people who didn’t even know an Aboriginal person in Australia. There are still people in our cities and towns today that still do not identify as Aboriginal people, but there are also many people who haven’t even spoken to an Aboriginal person. It’s just such a –

RAY MARTIN: Six out of ten.

GABI HOLLOWS: It’s six out of ten, is it, Ray? I am sorry, I don’t know the stats. But it is quite shocking to think of that today.

BRIAN DOOLAN: So the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program started 40 years ago but it’s not over yet. Thank you very much. Thank you to the National Museum. Thank you to the National Film and Sound Archive for the wonderful job you’ve done there in the restoration and presentation of the footage. Thank you very much Gordon, Trevor, Gabi and Rose. Thank you, everyone. Please join us now for some afternoon tea in the Main Hall where we can continue the discussion. Thank you. [applause]

Date published: 12 July 2016