Intended for healthcare professionals


Ann Ward

BMJ 2016; 354 doi: (Published 06 July 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;354:i3765
  1. Ned Stafford
  1. Hamburg
  1. ns{at}

Surgeon and nun who helped pioneer the surgical repair of obstetric fistula

Ann Ward was a devoted and a humble Roman Catholic nun. She was a dedicated, kind hearted, and skilful gynaecologist, obstetrician, and surgeon. And—according to those who knew and loved her—she was also very tough.

For nearly half a century, starting in 1959 as a member of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, Sister Ann cared for thousands of teenage girls and women in Nigeria. She helped pioneer surgery to repair the debilitating condition of obstetric fistula, which is caused by prolonged obstructed labour resulting in a hole between the rectum and vagina (rectovaginal fistula) or a hole between the bladder and vagina (vesicovaginal fistula). Women with the condition are often young—some are barely teenagers—and are presented by their families to older men as third or fourth wives when their bodies are not yet fully developed for childbirth.

“The worst thing that could happen to a woman”

In a 2001 interview in the Irish Times, Sister Ann said that the global health community focused more on ending female circumcision than on obstetric fistula. She felt that the latter was the bigger of the two problems, saying that it was “the worst thing that could happen to a woman.” She added, “It’s wonderful to be able to return women to their dignity, because it is such an injustice, the way these women are pushed around like cattle.”

By the time Sister Ann retired in late 2006, she had successfully …

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