Surgery of the brain performed on woman while Awake At UCH in Ibadan
2014: Woman undergoes Brain Surgery led by Dr. Olufemi Adeleye & co. while awake at UCH in Ibadan

Medicine men in ancient Egba society, took Osanyin as their deity and holders of the title bestowed in its cult formed a close association, like they do in Egypt, where advanced practice of medicine, as mentioned in Homer’s Oddysey, is said to have “left the rest of the world behind.” Notwithstanding the historical connection, which ought to have translated to a more advanced practice of medicine in ancient western Nigeria, what is found published about Lagos in the Anglo African Times newspapers of the 1860s was of diseases, dirt, and death. Around this time came the introduction of Western medicine, heralded by the founding of the Sacred Heart Hospital, established by Roman Catholic missionaries in Abeokuta. This irrevocably supplanted the primacy of traditional medical practitioners among whom there were expectedly, many fakes.

Adeola Adeoye in his chronicle of pioneer Nigerian medics warns however, that one who watches out for the red flag of unprofessionalism in each and every one of these practitioners is to be met with surprises. There were indeed measures of specialization in the practice of some. Their pharmacopoeia which consisted of herbs, amulets and other ingredients sometimes suggests some unwitting research had preceded their combinations. There are no certain records of research, and the 17th century Itsekiri prince who history records to be a keen lover of anatomy, Anthonio de Mingo, appears to have given up on his knack for experimentation after encountering a mysterious phenomenon. The medicine of native West Africans who have had no English education was described in Obadaih Johnson’s West African therapeutics in 1889.

Interest in healthy living or the desire to know may have inspired members of the Lagos Academy who from c. 1862 attended lectures on human physiology by Robert Campbell, a man remembered by history as a journalist. The narrative of modern medicine in Nigeria however, is characterized by the careers of proper Europe-trained doctors who pioneered the field in the late 19th Century. They themselves rose from the need to meet the growing concern among Europeans who came to West Africa, for the region is popularly said to be the white man’s grave. The Church Missionary Society was appointed to select the most promising for studies in Great Britain. So emerged Davies and Horton, who, before the drawing on the curtain on the scheme, completed their studies in King’s College, London. The two young men, after receiving certifications as medical doctors from Scottish Universities returned to the service towards which their training was designed; to care for the colonial army in the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, same purpose for which the first General Hospital in Nigeria established in 1893 was meant to serve. Modern medicine was not practiced by a native in Nigeria until Nathaniel King, who was, a product of Dr. Harrison of Abeokuta mission.

African nurses in action  at UCH Ibadan, 1959
The University College Teaching Hospital, Ibadan, c. 1959. Photo:

In 1861, Harrison had begun the training of four promising native youths in the “medical school” started by the CMS Theological Institute of Abeokuta. Lessons commenced when a supply of Hooper’s Physician vade mecum arrived, but Harrson never went further than the fifth proposition of Euclid. In this short-lived Abeokuta experiment, one student was dismissed, two sent to teach in Lagos schools. The only student who survived, Nathaniel King, would train in the United Kingdom and return to set up the first native private practice in Lagos. The two who had qualified ahead of him, Davies and Horton never really set up one in their own country. Qualifying after Nathaniel King were Obadiah Johnson, John K. Randle, Orisadipe Obasa, Akinsiku Leigh-Sodipe, and Oguntola Sapara. Half of these ones, showing signs of uncommon gift, sadly left meager heritage because of the brevity of their lives. More black doctors, particularly Randle and Obasa had been employed into colonial medical service, in response to the Revrend James Johnson’s petition, to cushion the effect of the Adeola scandal of June 1888 in which a native lady, Adeola died from complications arising through the medical negligence of doctors Digby and Mattei.

The 19th Century Nigerian doctors schooled in England, but also showed great affinity for Scotland where most of them received higher training, inevitably getting enthralled in Scottish intellectual tradition. The 1898 petition of Rt. Hon. Joseph Chamberlain, secretary of state of the colonies to the UK medical schools may not have been without reason. All medical officers selected for appointment in the tropics, he suggested in a 1920 archive of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, should enter their career with expert knowledge requisite for dealing with diseases as are prevalent in the tropics.

The environmental situation in Lagos towards the end of the century had become a major source of worry. As it is evident in many newspapers of the time, and as it is aptly told by Olukoju, the problem of sanitation and health at this period was not a minor issue. Before the coming of Isaac Oluwole, who was to be remembered as the father of Nigerian public health, the approach to this dangerous situation was racist. White residents were kept at a distance from black residents. Building on the preventive philosophy of Akinsiku Leigh-Sodipe, who “invented” the saying that “prevention is better than cure,” and whose own career had been caught at thirty-six years by a fever, Oluwole pioneered school health services and started the first School of Hygiene in Nigeria, at Yaba in 1920. The sanitary inspection program which he started, called Wole Wole, came to a head with the 1924 outbreak of bubonic plagues.

Succeeding Oluwole in the position of the Medical Officer of Health in Lagos colony was Oladele Ajose, the man who would start Nigeria’s Red Cross Society. Ajose followed Oluwole’s doctrine while presiding over the colony’s health system, paying attention to communicable diseases, especially tuberculosis, and carrying out large reclamation work and beautification of reclaimed lands in Lagos Island, Apapa, and Ikoyi as part of his scheme to keep Lagos Yellow Fever free. Oladele Ajose was an examiner in public health and forensic medicine at the school which was Nigeria’s first substantive medical school. He was also professor in charge of preventive medicine at the new College of Medicine in Ibadan. While Ajose was still a freshman at the University of Glassgow, the Anglophonian West African countries had started thinking of how to start Africa’s own medical school. Nigeria opted out three year after the series of transnational conferences to start in 1930, a Medical Training College in Yaba, furunner of the University College Hospital (UCH) Ibadan, which was merged with the latter when it was formed in 1948. The UCH included the country’s first full faculty of medicine and university hospital.

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer