By Hannah Southcott
Armed with a steaming cup of rosehip and hawthorn tea and a china bowl of almonds, Catherine Chan is ready to talk about the extraordinary journey she made from an impoverished Scottish immigrant to being one of Australia’s leading alternative fertility specialists.
Catherine was born in Scotland to a Scottish father and a tough Italian mother. “Actually I was conceived in Italy,” she says, a mischievous twinkle in her sapphire blue eyes. Her Glaswegian father, William Beattie, worked as a boilermaker and welder to support his family, but even when there were only four children, times were tough. It was the post-war era and there just wasn’t much food to go around. “We were all on rations. Everyone was really poor. My brother used to get beaten, because he’d go with this ticket to the shop to get the rations for mum and the guys would wait on him and pounce on him. He learnt how to run, my brother George.”
When Catherine was eight, her family travelled to Southampton and boarded a ship bound for Australia. Mrs Beattie was pregnant with twins during the voyage. The family settled in Queensland and Catherine’s dad went to work in the mines.
With a growing family and very little money, the Beattie kids were often sent out by their mother to gather what food they could find. The children stole fruit from the surrounding farms and went yabbying in the local waterways.
Catherine learnt from a young age to be somewhat of a chameleon with her accents. “We didn’t want to be known as wogs, so we would quickly adapt to the accent of the Australians,” she says and then switches to a Scottish brogue mid-sentence. “I can change even now and I can be a real broad Scot.”
Her early teenage years were difficult. She refers to her mother as “a violent matriarch”, who couldn’t wait for her to leave home. She was teased mercilessly for her skinny frame and a burn she sustained as a baby and was beaten at school by her teachers for her lack of academic aptitude. When she was 13, she ran away from home and got her first job working in an Arnott’s biscuit factory. Exhilarated by her new economic freedom, she jumped from job to job for a year until she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She told the enrolling officer she was 17. “I had graduated by the time I was 19 and then I moved to Sydney, because I wanted to earn more money.”
When she arrived in Sydney, her brother introduced her to Lo, the man who would become her first husband and alter the course of her life. “He was 26 years older than me and I was just fascinated by his culture.” Lo was a Chinese expat who owned a popular Chinese restaurant. It was through meeting him that she would come to learn about the potent Chinese herbs that are the key to her success as a fertility specialist.
Catherine believed that because Lo was so much older than her, he would be kind and nurturing. “Boy, was I wrong,” she says, her mouth a grim line. “He was the one who needed looking after.” Starved of the affection she had craved since childhood, she was desperate to have children. After several years of trying and many invasive, unsuccessful surgeries, she forged Lo’s signature on adoption papers. Soon they had a new addition to the family, a little girl called Louise.
It was around then that Catherine made her first visit to Asia, a trip she had been dreaming about since she first met Lo. In a small Malaysian town, she had her hand read by a nun who recommended a mixture of herbs to help with her infertility. “She said, ‘you must boil these herbs and they will make your blood strong, then you can have a baby’. And you know, that’s exactly what happened.”
Catherine gave birth to a boy, Andrew, but she continued to struggle with her health and was eventually diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Disillusioned with the doctors and unable to accept that MS was incurable, she continued to learn about alternative medicine.
She travelled back to China several times, with her three small children (she adopted her second child, Nathan before Andrew was born) and learned enough Cantonese to study in the language. Unable to rely on the intermittent financial support from her husband, she taught English to pay for courses in acupuncture and Chinese medicine. In 1983, she returned to Australia and decided to undergo full naturopathy training.
Reflexologist Ines Putzmann met Catherine at a seminar 30 years ago and has been a close friend ever since. “Catherine had a lot of go in her. Her enthusiasm and beliefs in natural medicine were infectious,” she says, a smile in her voice. “She was always very calm and confident that her treatments and remedies would work.”
And work they did. Many of her fertility patients are desperate to have children and have spent years and thousands of dollars on IVF, turning to Catherine as a last resort. Using iridology, she maps out the health of each patient’s body and prescribes a mixture of Chinese herbs, dietary supplements, lifestyle adjustments and exercise to help couples conceive. She has helped hundreds of people who were told by doctors that they could never have children.
Julian Edward, a former student, says many patients revere the work that she does. “I think there is a certain element of authenticity about her, because she healed herself before she became a practitioner. It wasn’t just something minor. She healed herself from multiple sclerosis which is, by medical definition, incurable.”
Hearing of her successes and seeing her comfortably reclined in an armchair, it’s easy to forget that Catherine Chan was once a penniless, skinny little girl running barefoot through the Australian bush. But then, with a wicked gleam in her eye, she breaks out in Scottish brogue, “How many birds can a Scotsman fit under his kilt?” she drawls. Pausing just a moment, for comic effect, she continues, “It depends how long the perch is!”