LATUNDE ODEKU: Nigeria’s First Neurosurgeon
He was just 47 when he died after a protracted illness, but within that short span of his life, he had achieved what many could not even if they attained the age of 100. How many people knew him? What has the nation done to remember him? These are questions that many will be asking after reading this piece. It is always good to give honour to who honour is due. He was an excellent doctor who brought glory to his fatherland. However, Nigeria is a country where men of integrity are scorned or hardly eulogized if they do not have a very fat pocket. Although his area of specialty is not popular and does not provide stupendous riches, yet he was such a phenomenal individual who sacrificed and gave intellectually to his nation.
Who was he?
He was Emmanuel Olatunde Olanrewaju Odeku, Nigeria’s first United States of America trained neurosurgeon, and the son of a deacon in the Baptist Church. His father, Deacon Odeku, of the Adubieye Compound in a tiny settlement known as Awe, Afijio Local Government in the then Oyo Province of Western Nigeria, was born in 1894. His mother, Madam Regina Odeku was born at Idumagbo Street Lagos, to parents who were natives of Oyo. The duo got married in 1921 and had their first child, a daughter in 1922. Olatunde was born on 29th June, 1927, as the first male child.
He attended St. John’s School, Aroloya, Lagos for his primary education in 1932. A bundle of intellectual gifts, he then proceeded to the Methodist Boys’ High School (MBHS) in 1945, where he shortened his name to Latunde.
He left for America as a beneficiary of the New York Phelps-Stokes Fund Scholarship for Medical Education. He had also passed the London Matriculation Examination in the same year leading the whole set in English, Geography, History, Chemistry and Biology.
In 1947, he went to the United States where he received his undergraduate and professional medical education, graduating from Howard University, Washington, D.C. in 1950, where he came first in his undergraduate class at the College of Liberal Arts in Howard University, Washington D.C, United States, graduating summa cumlaude (with the highest honour). The $8,000 scholarship that he had won saw him through the medical school from 1950 to 1954 when he received his MD.
He served his internship at the University Hospital, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1954-55, and majored in pathology under the late Professor Carl V. Weller, M.D. At the end of his medical internship, he went to the University of Western Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons where he passed the examination for the Licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada.
In order to gain firsthand knowledge of the problems of medical practice in the tropics, the milieu where he was to spend a good deal of his career as a neurosurgeon, he paid a brief visit to Nigeria between August, 1955 and June, 1956 and served as Medical Officer in the Lagos General Hospital.
He spent the next year at the University of Michigan under the tutelage of Edgar A. Kahn, chief of neurosurgery gourd of knowledge. By the end of the year, he had so much impressed his superiors that he was offered a residency position. According to Professor Kahn, Odeku was the very best of all the residents that he trained and he even co-authored a textbook of neurosurgery with him, Correlative Neurosurgery. Odeku also majored in neuropathology under the legendary late Professor Carl Vernon Weller, MD for his postgraduate internship.
In July, 1956, he was back at Michigan where he served for one year as assistant resident in general surgery under the late Professor Frederick A. Coller. For three years he trained in neurosurgery at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Ann Arbor, under the guidance of Professor Edgar A. Kahn and his associate, Dr. Richard C. Schneider. Toward the end of his training, he served briefly as senior neurosurgical resident at St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital, both in Ann Arbor and at the Wayne County General Hospital, Eloise, under Dr. Wyne W. Glas. He also received research training in experimental neurology under Professor Elizabeth C. Crosby, Ph.D. of the University of Michigan.
A Relm Foundation Grant at Ann Arbor facilitated his training in neuropathology which he continued at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D. C. from July 1960 to June 1961. He spent the next four months as Chief Resident in Paediatric Neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital, Philadelphia under Eugene N. Spitz, M.D.
In November, 1961, after he finished his training under Dr. Kahn, he returned to Howard University and became a member of the faculty of neurosurgery and a lecturer in neuroanatomy and later, consultant neurosurgeon at the Freedmen’s Hospital of the same school from 1961-1962 under a special programme organized by the United States Public Health Service. At that time, he was the second black to be certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery and the first US-trained black neurosurgeon.
He could have stayed on, with all the economic advantages of practising neurosurgery in the U.S.A., but his philosophy led him to decide to return to his native land, to embark on the “practice of neurosurgery specialty, with clinical and basic research in its various aspects, as well as teaching at one or more of the medical centres actively developing at home in Nigeria, West Africa.”
He came to the University of Ibadan in October 1962 as a lecturer in neurosurgery where he started the first neurosurgical department in Nigeria. He contributed greatly to the development of this niche and coupled with the fact that when he was coming down to Nigeria, he brought with him many neurosurgical instruments which he purchased at great personal expense. In addition, he placed at the disposal of the university and its teaching hospital his highly developed and disciplined surgical conscience and skill and a sustained meticulous devotion to patient care which soon became legendary. In 1963, he was promoted to senior lecturer at Ibadan and elected a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. In 1965, he became a full professor of surgery.
As a teacher, Odeku’s presentations were didactic, highly organized and convincingly clear. As a clinician, he had the uncanny ability of quickly getting down to essentials in diagnosis, whether at the busy outpatient clinics or at the formal medical conferences. A prolific writer, he published at least 100 scientific papers on neurology. He sent his earliest papers to local journals so as to make West Africans aware of the emergence of the novel discipline of neurosurgery at Ibadan.
Later, he published extensively in overseas journals. He was on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Nigerian Medical Association, African Journal of Medical Sciences, West African Medical Journal and the International Surgery Journal.
When he became Head of the Department of Surgery and Dean of the Medical School, University of Ibadan, between 1968 and 1971, he discharged his duties successfully with definitive approach to problems, unruffled and without emotional upheavals. As a fitting attestation of his scholarship, his alma mater, Howard University, awarded him its Alumni Medal in 1973, for his contributions to medical science and education.
He saw to the appointment of a consultant anaesthetist and called for the training of an entire team of neurosurgical nurses. It was clearly his brainchild and he pursued it with all passion and determination. He operated every Thursday and did all the radiology (neurodiagnostic studies) and pathological assessments by himself. He documented and attended to numerous cases some of which included spinal cord accidents, craniocerebral trauma (depressed skull fracture), intracranial phycomycosis, intradural extramedullary neurofibroma, cerebellar astrocytoma, frontal bone tuberculosis
An extremely humble man and humane doctor, Professor Odeku carried his six feet of handsome physique with a quiet unhurried grace and confidence. A gentleman with great personal charm, his many friends at home and abroad and all his relations will sadly miss his magnanimity and selflessness, his kindness and serenity and his repertoire of crisp, witty anecdotes.
One of his hobbies was poetry reading and writing. It is impossible to understand the complexity of his nature and his recipe for the solution of problems without reading his two beautiful books of poetry, Twilight and Whispers from the Night. They constitute some of the most touching and least flamboyant odysseys ever composed. His third volume which he completed just before his death is almost ready for publication.
A true trailblazer and global pioneer, it was his selflessness, commitment and patriotic zeal that opened the door for the field of neurosurgery to blossom, especially in Nigeria. Today, the E. Latunde Odeku Medical Library at the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan (Nigeria’s premier university) was named in his honour.
A disease had affected him so much that he could not function well as a surgeon again. For much of the time, he was in bed, and in pains. Finally, he had to leave for England in August 1974 for a lasting medical solution. But fate had another plan for him. At 11.20 pm on the 20th of August 1974, he died from the complications of a disease that had also afflicted his parents -diabetes mellitus.
He was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Church, Burmham, Bucks, England, on 27th August, in a simple Christian ceremony, just as he had requested, and in consonance with the quiet unpretentious way in which he lived. He is survived by his wife, Katherine Jill, a medical doctor and member of the British Medical Association, and two daughters and two sons.
The early death of Latunde Odeku leaves unfulfilled many of his ideas, and Africa, and tropical neurology in particular, will be poorer for the passage of this versatile professor, pioneer neurosurgeon, philosopher and poet.
It is very surprising that despite the huge achievements recorded by this young man, there has been no National Award here even mere MFR, yes, posthumously. Frankly speaking, we need more of Prof. Odeku than those who store away hard currencies in banks while keeping it away from the citizens that really need it.
Achievers and great men world round agree that true success is measured by the amount of lives they have affected positively and the magnitude of the effect they have on those lives. Riches and wealth will always come as a by product and will also pass away with them, but their impact will remain forever just like Prof. Odeku.