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Alice Keath with music by Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, produced by ABC Classic, 2021

ALICE KEATH: Objects and stories from Australian life.

MULTIPLE VOICES: This is us.

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: Lenses and frames in a wooden box.

ALICE KEATH: Have you seen that quote that’s been doing the rounds recently? It was shared over and over again during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic. As illness spread, the news got worse and life for so many people was put on hold. It’s a quote from the great American educator Fred Rogers and it goes:

RECORDING OF FRED ROGERS: You know, my mother used to say, a long time ago, whenever there would be catastrophe that was in the movies or on the air, she would say always look for the helpers. There will always be helpers.

ALICE KEATH: Well Fred Hollows — a different Fred — was a helper. And this object, this box, was how he worked. Helping one person at a time, with love, with human contact, in any way he could, to help restore people’s eyesight.

It’s a small wooden box the size of a briefcase — or maybe a backgammon set. It’s not ornate or made from particularly handsome wood and you can see it’s weathered a lot of use. It’s been banged around and carried from place to place. It’s worn in the best kind of way.

Inside the case is lined with purple velvet and it’s padded because what’s inside the box is precious. There are rows of about 30 shiny round disks — they almost look like fancy backgammon checkers. But they’re trial lenses and frames that Fred Hollows used when he was in the field and trying to fit people with glasses to improve their vision and their lives.

It was 1968 when Fred was first invited to go to the Northern Territory. He was shocked by the health conditions there. Trachoma was widespread — an infectious disease caused by bacteria. It’s the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness. But trachoma was rare in the rest of Australia.

These meetings and moments sparked Fred’s indignation and put him on the path that became his life’s work: fighting for better access to eye health and better living conditions for Indigenous Australians.

In 1985 he visited Nepal, Burma, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh for the World Health Organisation. What he witnessed in those countries made him turn his energies to finding ways to reduce the cost of eye care in developing countries.

Fred got things done. He took his shock and turned it into action that made a difference in the lives of so many people. In his time as a humanitarian and eye surgeon, Fred helped to restore eyesight to thousands of people in Australia and overseas. He always pushed for change and because of that put in motion a legacy to end avoidable blindness. Everywhere he went he brought his unswerving energy and optimism, and you can hear that in the piece written by the Girgoryan brothers after seeing this small wooden box.

[‘Fred’s Vision’ played by Leonard and Slava Grigoryan]

ALICE KEATH: ‘Fred’s Vision’ written and performed by the Grigoryan Brothers. I’m Alice Keath and This is us: A musical reflection of Australia was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to mark their 20th anniversary. Head to the ABC Classic website to view the objects, find out more and buy the Grigoryan Brothers album featuring all of the music in the project.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 09 March 2021

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