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How I became Nigeria’s first Professor of Medicine –Prof Oladipo Ogunlesi

By Charles Adegbite

The doyen of Medicine in Nigeria, Professor Emeritus Theophilus Oladipo Ogunlesi, who trained the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Ibadan and current Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole, and many other professors and medical experts in Nigeria and abroad has given the nation and the medical profession across the world, the best in him. He became a medical doctor in 1947 and the first Professor of Medicine in Nigeria in 1965. The 93years old medical genius who was born to a blacksmith father in Sagamu (Ogun State), speaks on how he became a doctor, why he went into lecturing, how he became the first Professor of Medicine in Nigeria over 50years ago, the challenges the country is facing today, among other salient issues. Excerpts:

 Could you tell us about yourself and your experience about Nigeria independence?
Well, I was born in Sagamu 93 years ago. I became a medical doctor in 1947. That’s through the Yaba Medical School. And I spent the period between 1947 to 1950 in Britain trying to improve on my Nigerian medical qualification so that I can be registered in England and subsequent steps after that to become a qualified medical officer . Or better still in 1960, I was already 37 years old when Nigeria became independent. So, at 37 I had done the most decisive things in my life, I got married at the age of 30 after I had completed my education. Then I became a specialist in the Western State Civil Service. Later, I became a senior lecturer at the  University of Ibadan, and Professor of Medicine in 1965.  I retired in 1983 at the age of 60. Those were the major steps of my life.
Can you tell us how you became the first professor of medicine in Nigeria?
I became a professor at the University of Ibadan in  1965. I joined the university in 1961 and I became a professor 4 years later and the year I became a senior lecturer and that was because I was already a specialist in the civil service. I joined at a time when Ibadan (UI) was ran mostly by expatriate  teachers. So, I was one of the first Nigerian lecturers in Medicine. That’s why I became the first Nigerian professor of Medicine at University of Ibadan. I left the Western Region Civil Service to join the university. UCH (University College Hospital) Ade Oyo, as you may recall, which was part of the Western Region Civil Service, served as a temporary teaching hospital from 1948 to 1957 until UCH was completed. And when UCH was completed and ready for use, the university transferred the teaching structure from Ade Oyo to Orita Mefa.

At that time was it  that they will have to ask you to leave the university and come to UCH?
There was a vacancy when the University College Hospital Ibadan was established in 1948 and they decided to have a Faculty of Medicine. They needed a teaching hospital. And they decided in 1948 that Ade Oyo Hospital Ibadan was the best place to start with. They expanded the Adeoyo Hospital tremendously with the hope that, because they were to receive London University degrees, and in the hope that an expanded Adeoyo will receive approval from London University. But that hope was dashed when a delegation  from London visited in 1952, four years after they started and told the Nigeria government that London was not prepared to approve Ade Oyo as a teaching hospital, no matter what they did. That they had to build an entirely new hospital; purpose built, to be called the College Hospital.
That was how UCH Ibadan, came into being. They found a new site and built this fine structure designed by London University. That is what makes UCH  the model for many African medical schools till today.
So when they moved out, I took over the Department of Medicine at Adeoyo, largely influenced by Chief Obafemi Awolowo who wanted Nigerians to be running the place, because it was ran by the white. Ade Oyo Teaching Hospital was ran by the British and they were teaching us up to that time. Since I have the qualifications I was promoted from Medical Officer to Specialist. When there was a vacancy  in 1961 since I was not under any bond, I applied and that is how I got it. I had to transfer  from the state civil service to the university. I was appointed as a senior lecturer, so I was a senior lecturer for four years  and I was promoted to the post of a professor  in 1965.

What actually prompted you into studying medicine at that time?
Well looking back, what I thought was an accident, must have been divine direction because some children, because their parents were rich,  had already determined what profession they must follow and they had the funds to train them by sending them abroad. But my father was a blacksmith. So, if I were to follow any trade at all, I should have been a blacksmith or a farmer for that matter. Those were the two things since I did not belong to parents who had the money to send any of their children abroad. But, somehow, they managed to pay my school fees for secondary education at the CMS Grammar School, Lagos.
As it turned out, that was the time the government of the day was trying to promote post secondary education to public services. This was a colonial government. That was why they established the Yaba Higher College. And they recruited some of the best products in various secondary schools throughout the country, put them together and trained them in the various professions.
That Yaba Higher College had associated schools of Medicine, Agriculture, Engineering, all the professions. But they did not train full-fledged professionals, they trained what were called assistants. They were to be assistants to the university-trained. That was the philosophy of what they called the Yaba Higher College and I was educated under that same scheme. Higher college was flourishing when I left secondary school. And I won a scholarship therefore into that College of Medicine. That was how I got into Medicine.
The options was, I could have done teaching, because my principal actually wanted me to do Art so that I could come back to teach in the school. But there was a Doctor R. L. Oluwole, son of Bishop Oluwole, who was exemplary. He took an interest in the students of the school. I just thought I should be like him, which was why I preferred Medicine. If there was anybody who  inspired me into studying medicine, Dr. Oluwole was one of them. When I wrote my autobiography at the age of 80, I titled it Medicine: My Passport, which I hope you must have read.

 Why did you venture into lecturing in the university and not remain a medical doctor?
Well, a university lecturer or professor is a teacher. As long as education remains what it is, there must be the teacher and those to be taught. Since, I was taught by some people, I wanted to be like my teacher.  So, in the subject of Medicine which is a composition of various disciplines, ophthalmologists, who take care of the eyes, surgeons who use knives, physicians who use stethoscopes, obstetricians who look at  pregnant women etc. Each speciality has its own attractions.
So, once you enter a medical school, most students decide based on the influence their teachers have on them, which way they want to go. It takes seven years, or it took me seven years anyway to go through the first system, after leaving secondary school. And, as I said, there were not many specialists in my time but the few that we had influenced my decision to be a physician and to remain a surgeon.

That means your teacher motivated you into medicine?
Well, when you are a physician you can again either practice or teach. There was no university in my time but we had a school where there were teachers. And I preferred to teach, I preferred to teach in the sense that teaching has additional factor which practice does not have and that is research. Research for new knowledge is usually based in the university system. So, if you are interested in adding to knowledge or discovering what is not known, you will be part of a university system. What they called tertiary education. Research goes around tertiary education.

 If you look at the way medicine is being practiced in Nigeria today especially as many doctors and nurses are going abroad seeking  greener pasture to get better pay, what will you say actually is wrong in Nigeria?
The difference is between a good government and bad government, a government that does not provide sufficient funds for education or  sufficient funds for running the hospitals, you can’t expect good results. So, underfunding is the major factor. When all the money has gone into the  kind of things we read about now in the newspapers, there is nothing left.

 If you have your way sir what will you tell government, and what will you want government to do actually to really put things straight?
They don’t need to be told anything, they know what to do, what is lacking is  political will. They know. For instance the Minister of Health in this Buhari administration was the former Vice Chancellor of UI (University of Ibadan). Are we going to say he doesn’t know what to do? He was a professor of  obstetrics for so many years, so, if he is able to convince the executive, the cabinet as to the needs for his ministry to get a good fraction of the national budget he will make a good job all over it.
But when the World Health Organisation recommendations is something like 10 to 15% of the budget to be assigned to health and they gave him 5 to 6 per cent, what can he do with that? So, that is why I’m saying under-funding is a major cog. Some of the ministers are very brilliant but they have no money.

 As Professor Emeritus, if you are to assess our institutions and the training being given to medical students do you think that the nation is preparing well for a healthy generation?
Ah, you know health is wealth.

And what happens to the nation that doesn’t provide good facilities for the health of its people?
As I said the problem is not knowing, that is not the problem. We know what to do. We know what is to be done, as individuals and as a nation.
Ebola taught Liberia a lesson. We lost  Doctor Adadevoh because of Ebola. Now we are struggling with Lasser fever. These are preventable and treatable diseases,  what they call communicable diseases unlike cancer which is an example of diseases that  we don’t have treatment for. But the ones that kill most of our people here are things that we already know enough about how to prevent.
Take delivery of babies for instance, Pregnancy is not a disease, yet it kills so many here. Malaria is something we know all about in terms of how to avoid it. Don’t breed mosquitoes in your compound. Sleep under mosquito net. Nutrition;eat good food. These are things that people know but they don’t do it. When we can eliminate, when we can use existing knowledge to treat, to avoid being ill or to get well when we are ill, we will make a much healthier society. That is why they say health is wealth.
A healthy nation is a wealthy nation. But no nation can grow when majority of its people are ill. Hypertension and  diabetes are things we know a lot about. If we use our knowledge, we are in a position to use the knowledge that is available to us, thereby reducing what they call maternal mortality, maternal morbidity and infant mortality. Too many infants die unnecessarily  avoidable death. The life expectancy in Nigeria is much lower than it is in United States.
Let me tell you this story to round up this thing, I attended a birthday, just before last Christmas. This was the 90th birthday of a Nigerian. And the preacher was saying at the pulpit that he tried to look for a 90th birthday card to give to the celebrant. And that everywhere that he went to and asked for a 90th birthday card, book sellers laughed at him  and said “90th birthday cards, we don’t sell things like that” because nobody lives up to 90years in Nigeria. So, he couldn’t find it. You know if you are a book seller and you stock cards for  90th birthdays , how many people live up to 90 years that will make people come and buy the  cards from you. That is what life expectancy is all about.You see 60, 70, by the time they are 80 they are dead. So,those of us God gave grace to reach 90 years could not find 90th birthday cards here in Nigeria.Those that were  presented to me were not produced in Nigeria.They were brought from abroad.

You said some of your students are already flourishing in their careers; can you name some of the notable ones among them?
Well, the current Minister of Health, who was until last year November was the Vice Chancellor of UI, Professor Adewole, was my student at UI. Before him was another former Vice Chancellor. Also, the late Professor Kayode Oshuntokun, a founding member of Pan African Association of Neurological Sciences was  my student. They also include  late Professor Yombo Awojobi, a distinguished surgeon who left UCH to establish Awojobi Clinic, Eruwa and several other professors and medical practitioners in  Nigeria, Britain, America and other places.

Can you tell us about your experience of Nigerian independence movement considering the fact that  you were already a doctor and married at the time the nation was agitating for independence?
I know that during the colonial period we had 12 provinces. Six northern and six southern provinces.There were six provinces in the North that was what they called  Northern Nigeria, and six in the South; that was in the beginning.That was how Nigeria was ruled until 1960. It was after that they started creating states. We moved from 12 provinces into 3 regions. If you remember Western Region, Eastern Region and Northern Region. It was when we became independent that Nigerians decided to turn the parliamentary system into federal system and then we became republican. That is the background.
Now whether we could have done better to continue the British style of having prime minister and elected parliament rather than this presidency and whatever it is, is a matter of history. This is  the background.

You said we had 6 provinces in the North and 6 provinces in the South until 1960, what do you think actually went wrong  at the end of the day as  we have more states in the north than in the south?
The issue then was how to form government that was truly representative of the people. You see, I don’t know when the first census was taken, but if you look at the provinces. Some provinces were larger than the whole region.  Northern Nigeria is much bigger in geographical size than another  whole region in  Nigeria. So, when it came to dividing Nigeria into states, I believe the formula of equal numbers must have been discredited that the North claimed to be more populous than the South. You know as at today we have 36 states. They have  19, we have 17, in the whole South. And it’s based on figures which have never been truly verified since we don’t have accurate census. I don’t think we ever had any accurate census in this country. And you can’t have an accurate census when you don’t know when a child was born and when he dies. You can be in Nigeria for your whole life time and have no record of birth or death. So, the states were born into a setting in which their future have been predetermined by past events.
The provinces, the regions and now the states. You know the agitation for state creation still continues. If you are a pessimist, you might see state creation as a bad thing. If you are an optimist you might look for more states. America as it is, so large, has 50 states. Each of them, the whole of Nigeria is not as economically strong as the State Of New York for instance.
So, I think we are growing, still  growing and learning how to mature. We are still in the process of deciding what is the best way to govern ourselves. We can no longer blame the colonial government. We, Nigerians are in the position today to fashion out our own destiny. And, of course the story about corruption is not news to anybody; we know that corruption is deeply entrenched  into our system.

Do you think it could have been better if we  remained in provinces or regions or the states are okay?
I don’t think it is as simple as all that. The British colonial system carried the weight since Britain had an empire. What they called an empire that time, through which they ruled the world was that they had colonies all over the world.  India, Australia and all of those countries. When they came to Nigeria, they found out  that there were kingdoms here. We had kings and queens as powerful as their own British sovereign. But since they were able to gain control of our territories by conquest, they cleverly introduced what they called Indirect Rule by allowing our own kings to continue to function in their own ways through what they called Native Laws and Customs. And they appointed brilliant graduates of Cambridge and Oxford as  Administrative Officers who applied the rules.
They  controlled the police, they controlled the finance, they controlled what they called the Indirect Rule. When there was any credit they took that, whenever there was any fault they blamed the Oba. That was that. And since they controlled the money, they subjected our own system into bondage under their own. They ruled by what they called Indirect Rule. They allowed the native courts to function. I certainly remember that when I was a child we had what they called NA Police (Native Administration Police)
Lagos was the only part of Nigeria which was colonised. It was the colony of Britain and that was why Ikoyi was  different then. They lived there. They ran it as a British town. They pushed the Oba to Isale Eko so that they can control small area of Lagos and the rest of it they developed. You see? Then they ruled Nigeria  from Lagos to Kano by what they called Indirect Rule, which was what generated all the political controversies led by the late Herbert Macaulay, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Anthony Enahoro and Sadauna of Sokoto ,  Ahmadu Bello and all these people. All the struggle led to  Nigeria’s independence in 1960.
We have moved through a system of regional  government and in retrospect  Western Region will appear better to have continued in the absence of recent suggestions that we should go back to regional system. And letting the regions function as a federation of three regions is better than this federation of 36 states. This is because the regions will be more powerful than the states are now and the Federal Government will have  better control of the federation.
Now we have a very powerful Federal Government  and we have very weak states. So, to that extent, statism tends to promote a narrower vision of nationhood than desirable. My clear vision of Ogun State was that whatsoever the argument, Sagamu was to have been  capital of Ogun State. Why Abeokuta became the capital is another story altogether,because Ogun State is the gateway into Nigeria, You cannot go from Lagos to any part of Nigeria without going through some parts of Ogun State and Sagamu is the gateway town in the gateway state. And I believe that there was a strong move to make Sagamu capital of Ogun State but as it turned out and I have no doubt that  is one of the issue of the strong controlling the weak. And I don’t want to mention any name.

Since Sagamu was denied the state capital after it has been recommended, it means you were neither really excited nor …?
Well, since I wasn’t going to be part of the running of the state, there was no reason coming to the newly created state. Ibadan was very powerful in those days and I was there. The university was very strong, being a  federal university. It was the first Nigeria university. We were very comfortable there. We were better there. And a professor was better than any permanent secretary or Head of Service. So, speaking for  myself now, I was quite indifferent  the fact that I belong to Ogun State not withstanding. I was happier to be part of the federal set up in terms of public services to which the University of Ibadan belongs.

If you look at Ogun State now, having been created in 1976, is it what you like it to be?

Of all the states in the country, Ogun State has the best chance of developing its services to meet the requirements of the communities for the reason that Ogun State is the closest to Lagos State, which was a capital of the country. So,  proximity gave Ogun State an advantage; think of somebody in Kano compared to somebody in Lagos. I attended secondary school in Lagos and you found out that most Ogun State citizens have one kind of link with Lagos  i.e  family, trader or  religious.
So, it is to be expected that the development of Ogun State will be the fastest in Nigeria.
Educationally, particularly Egbaland.  The Egba were foremost in education in the sense that after the slave trade, the missionaries that established in Sierra Leone; the first   place they settled was Abeokuta. That CMS Grammar School which I attended was to have been established in Abeokuta. I think the story was that of  cultism. They didn’t like the idea of Oba being non Christian. And they wanted a missionary school. That was what forced forced them to leave Abeokuta for Lagos.
CMS Grammar School in Lagos was established in 1859 and it remains the oldest secondary school in Nigeria till today. Education has become a key factor in development of Ogun State. And therefore when you look at Ogun State, some of the best schools are there, particularly  what they called geo-politically West; Egba, Egbado, Ijebu, Ijebu-Remo, Ekiti, Ondo; those are the Yoruba speaking states. Most of them had government secondary schools way back in the early 90s or something like that.
So, education has been a key factor in the growth and development of Ogun State. Then trade. Cocoa, all the good things that Chief Awolowo did, became the foundations steps that enabled the West to become what it is today. Even with the movement of the capital from Lagos to Abuja, you know Lagos still remains the  commercial capital of Nigeria. And Ogun State being the next door, has benefited tremendously from that, even to the point now that Lagos is overcrowded and there is a lot of movement into most families in Ijebu, Egba and Benin, Edo and Ondo they have very strong links with Lagos in  education, property, trade and so on.
So, whatever the mistakes, the steps that have been taken since the establishment of the state have justified the creation, such that the units  are smaller and  they became easier to govern. I hope that the 40 years of the creation of the state will turn out to be the slowest part of its developmental history. That is  whatever lessons they need to learn, they have learnt it within the 40 years and that the next 10 years for instance they will clock 50 years will bring rapid progress such that at the age of 50 they would have done a lot of work to lift the community into the frontline of development.
Today can you say boldly that you are proud of being from Ogun State?
Oh yes. Well, let me put it this way; that I did not choose my colour, I am a black man. I came into the world not white but black or brown, whatever the colour is.
Secondly, I was not born in Ghana or Sierra Leone, I was born in Nigeria. And that makes me a Nigerian. These are factors that were made in which I had no choice. Perhaps, most importantly, I was born in Sagamu, not in Abeokuta or in Ondo. Any little efforts of my life that has produced any good results and I like to say that the training of doctors is my major contribution to this society. Any of such activities gives me, as I look back, joy and satisfaction. I have seen some of my students flourish in their careers  in different parts of the world. I have been to the United States and  the United Kingdom to find those who we taught in Ibadan here doing extremely well as specialists and as professors in universities which means that we taught them at the University of Ibadan and gave them very a good background.


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