Theophilus Oladipo Ogunlesi: Nigeria’s first professor of medicine

Born on July 12, 1923, his father, Daniel Ogunlesi, a blacksmith was the Otun Balogun of Makun Sagamu in Ogun State. His mother, late Madam Comfort Efunsola Ogunlesi was a trader.

Theophilus education began in 1930 at St. Paul’s Primary, Sagamu and instead of the normal seven years, he only spent six. He entered CMS Grammar School in 1936. Again, he was admitted into class two instead of class one and finished in 1940. He attended Higher College Yaba; 1941-42, and Yaba Medical School; 1942-47. He was in the University of London for a medical degree in 1953 and went to a Post graduate medical school 1957-58. He also attended University of Minnesota Minneapolis, Minesotta U.S.A. 1967-68. From the position of an Assistant to full Medical Officer in the Nigerian Medical Department in 1947-1956, Ogunlesi moved to London where he served briefly as House Physician in Hammersmith Hospital of Ducane Road. He was also Registrar in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, University College Hospital, London, in the subsequent year for a period of seven months. Ogunlesi returned to Nigeria in 1958 to join the Western Nigerian Civil Service Ibadan as a Specialist Physician, a position which he held till 1961.

The University College Ibadan temporary Teaching Hospital at Ade Oyo was denied accreditation by its London University affiliate in 1952, necessitating the return of Ade Oyo to its former status. The Premier of the Western region, Obafemi Awolowo, wanting the administration of the hospital to pass into indigenous hands, retained Ogunlesi and due to his qualification, had him promoted to the rank of a specialist. In 1961, Ogunlesi answered an opening at the University and was appointed a senior lecturer, attaining professorship within four years. He retired in 1984.

Emeritus Professor Theophilus Oladipo Ogunlesi, FAS, OFR is the first professor of Medicine in Nigeria and the first to be appointed Emeritus Professor of Medicine in Nigeria (1986). The last chapter of his book, MEDICINE MY PASSPORT, carried the title – ‘80 NOT OUT’ was written when he clocked 80.

This living legend is one of the giants of Nigerian medicine. His contemporaries includes Prof. Olu Mabayoje, the first Nigerian to pass the British Licentiate exams from the Yaba Medical School, Prof. Ade Elebute, Prof Oritshejolomi Thomas. Dr Barau Dikko, the first doctor from Northern Nigeria, Prof. Lambo, Dr. Okojie, Prof. Ransome Kuti, Prof. Onuaguluchi Nwokolo and others. Prof Ogunlesi is the founder of the Nigerian Postgraduate Medical College, where he was the foundation president. He is also the first coordinator of the world renowned Ibarapa Community Health Project.

He succeeded Prof. Alexander Brown as Head of Department of Medicine in Ibadan after Professor Brown’s untimely death in 1969 thus being the first Nigerian to occupy the office. He was born in Sagamu, where he had his elementary education. He also attended CMS Grammar School when it was at Broad Street, Lagos. He provides an encyclopedic knowledge of Nigeria as it was in the 40’s and 50’s having served as a physician in Lagos, Abeokuta, Benin, Bukuru, Osogbo and other parts of the country. He attended the Yaba College and Yaba Medical School thereafter. He, among other graduates of this school were awarded the Licentiate of Medicine which, due to colonial restrains made them only eligible to practice as assistants to the colonial medical officers and not full fledged medical officers. He, among others broke that yoke. He is also the first Nigerian to pass the Member of the Royal College of Physicians  (MRCP exams) and also the first to be awarded Fellow, Royal College of Physicians.

One thing that is so special about ‘Baba’ and many of the earliest generation of Nigerian medical practitioners had in abundance are three attributes. The first was their patriotism and unwavering commitment to standards and excellence in the practice of medicine.

The second was their altruism. They cultivated the habit of forward thinking, never accepting their today as ordained by fate; taking challenges in their strides and thinking of how to bring succour to the people.

Thus, it did not come as a surprise that about 15 years before the Alma Mata Declaration, Professor Ogunlesi and his colleagues had provided the blueprint and initiated the Ibarapa Community and Primary Health Programme in 1963. Healthcare systems all over the world are now embracing this concept – a product of their thoughts and initiative.

An important fall-out of their altruism and foresight was conceiving the idea of a National Postgraduate Medical College over 40 years ago. Papa was in the vanguard of its establishment and went ahead to nurture it as the first president of the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria until it stood firmly on its feet.

Now, the developed world has virtually shut us out of their specialist training programmes. Even before then, it had served as a conduit for meeting the deficiencies in their healthcare requirements as many of our doctors stayed behind after their programme. However, with the establishment of the National Medical College, our doctors continue to offer services to our people during and after the completion of their training.

Today, the products of this college constitute over 90 per cent of medical consultants working in our hospitals, training other consultants and medical students and contributing to improvement in healthcare through service and research. Nigerians, salute Papa Ogunlesi and his team!

One incident in the life of Papa Ogunlesi that deserves mention, if only to spur us to action; to bring to the fore the lesson that man is made to serve; is that the only way to be remembered is not by the acquisition of wealth and properties but only through service to mankind; that by serving the nation we are serving ourselves.

On July 30, 1999, Reuben Abati wrote an interesting article in a Nigerian newspaper under the title, “The Man from Sagamu.” Four years later, Professor Theophilus Oladipo Ogunlesi, in his recollections wittily introduced himself thus, “I was born and bred in Sagamu. My parents also were born and bred in Sagamu, so were my grandparents, my great grandparents, etc. So, if anyone really wants to know the real man from Sagamu, I am the one…” No wonder he remains among the top on the list of notable people from Sagamu.

Ogunlesi has been honoured with the traditional title of the Baasegun of Ibarapa, Oyo State and the Baasegun of Ijebu Remo in Ogun State. He was awarded Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) in 1983. His publications include monographs in national and international scientific and professional journals.

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