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Dr. E. Latunde Odeku: The First African-American Neurosurgeon Trained In The United States

The first black neurosurgeon to be trained in the United States. A patriot who sacrificed all for his nation. But he has largely remained in obscurity (especially to those outside the medical community). No thanks to a nation where governments would rather honour a thief, praise a criminal to high heavens and adorn a cabal with medals than celebrate the real heroes. Join Abiyamo as we explore the life of one of Africa’s most illustrious sons.

The Life Story Biography Photo LATUNDE ODEKU, Nigeria's First Neurosurgeon4


-On the 29th of June 1927, in the Adubieye Compound of a tiny settlement known as Awe, Afijio Local Government in the then Oyo Province of Western Nigeria, the cries of a chubby baby boy resonated through the thatched roofs of time-tested huts, bouncing against the soft palm fronds. A star was born. From a hamlet in Yorubaland of West Africa, he would go on to become the first professor of neurosurgery in Nigeria, the world’s most populous black nation. He was named EMMANUEL OLATUNDE OLANREWAJU ALABA the son of ODEKU.

-His father was a deacon in the Baptist church and he would later attend the St. John’s School in Aroloya, Lagos State for his primary education in 1932. A bundle of intellectual gifts, he then proceeded to the Methodist Boys’ High School (MBHS) in 1945 after which 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. It was in MBHS that he shortened his name to Latunde (toosh things ba? LOL!)


The Life Story Biography Photo LATUNDE ODEKU, Nigeria's First Neurosurgeon

-In April 1950, 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. In his senior year in the Howard Medical School, he worked as an intern at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Ann Arbor (1954-55). As an intern, he drank from Professor Edgar A. Kahn’s gourd of knowledge. By the end of the year, he had so much impressed his superiors that he was offered a residency position. And till 1960, he would remain a dutiful and intelligent student of Dr. Kahn who was the chief of neurosurgery (why am I remembering Dr. House all of a sudden?).

-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. (Weller’s son, Thomas Huckle Weller of Harvard University would later win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1954 as an American virologist for showing how to cultivate the polio virus in a test-tube using tissues from monkeys).

-In 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 2nd black to be certified by the American Board of Neurological Surgery and the first US-trained black neurosurgeon.

-He would later go to the University of Western Ontario, Canada where he bagged the Licentiate of the Medical Council of Canada (LMCC) in 1955. One major reason why he went to Canada was to have a better understanding of the problems facing medical practice in tropical regions since he would later work in the tropics of Africa. He later became an authority in tropical neurology.

-Fresh from training with a brain spewing off terabytes of vast medical knowledge, he got multiple job offers to work in the United States of America. But then something very radical happened.


The Life Story Biography Photo LATUNDE ODEKU, Nigeria's First Neurosurgeon2

-The erudite scholar had decided to embark on the “practice of neurosurgery specialty, with clinical and basic research in its various aspects, as well as its teaching at one or more of the medical centres actively developing at home in Nigeria, West Africa.” Based on his personal philosophy, he turned down all the job offers and chose to return to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which at that time, had nothing as far as neurosurgery was concerned. And when you know that neurosurgeons are some of the highest paid in America, you will doff your hat for him. Today, we all know that the reverse is the case, with the massive brain drain. As you are reading this, many doctors cannot wait to leave the West African jungle called Nigeria. Just some days ago, news reaching Abiyamo had it that countless doctors in Lagos State were already finalizing their plans to leave the country for Saudi Arabia and Israel (maybe one of them is even reading this…lol). As at February 2012, 77% of black doctors in the United States were Nigerians. Well, I just wonder if our leaders have no sense of shame when they run overseas for medical treatment only to land in the hands of a Nigerian doctor. Professor Odeku turned down the American job offers and all the economic perks and advantages that came with it to become a pioneer of neurosurgical care in Nigeria, and this he did brilliantly until his death.

-Thus, the expert packed his bags and headed for Nigeria and by October 1962, he was already at the University of Ibadan as a lecturer in neurosurgery where he started the first neurosurgical department in Nigeria. He became a Senior Lecturer in 1963. He contributed greatly to the development of this niche and you also need to appreciate the fact that when he was coming down to Nigeria, he brought with him many neurosurgical instruments that he had bought after great financial sacrifice (his decision to come to Nigeria would also cause him to lose one of the things he cherished most in his life, as you will see later on). (By the way, I wonder how much the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Health spends on instruments of neurosurgery today).

-Odeku placed his vast and extremely-skillful experience at the disposal of the University. He was so passionate, devoted and committed (especially to his patients) that within a short time, Professor Odeku had attained the status of a legend within the medical community. But what a shame for a nation like ours that keeps no history. We barely even know him today. In a nation where thieves are given the highest national honours, Abiyamo will honour this great man in our own way. By November 1965, he was already a full professor of surgery. For a man who joined UCH in September 1962 as a temporary lecturer, that was no small achievement.


-As a teacher, he was the dream come true of any medical student. His presentations were extremely explanatory, well-planned and just too clear. He ensured that he made them so simple that virtually anyone would understand in an instant -he was a gifted teacher, and his prowess of passing down knowledge was second to none. As a clinician, he broke down quickly all the essentials to arrive at a diagnosis, and like a magician, he made it all so simple -whether he was at an international medical conference or in an outpatient clinic full of patients.

-As he was an outstanding teacher, he was also an excellent writer. He published not less than 100 scientific papers. He would send his earliest papers to local journals in a bid to spread the news of the new discipline of neurosurgery in Ibadan to all West Africans. He also published extensively in scientific journals abroad. He was even 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. Also, he was:

-Medical Officer, Lagos General Hospital, Federal Medical Service of Nigeria (August 1955- June 1956).
-Assistant General Surgery Resident, University of Michigan (1956).
-Neurosurgeon Resident (1957-1960), Junior Clinical Instructor, Senior Clinical Instructor (St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital, the Veterans Administration Hospital, Michigan & the Wayne County General Hospital, Eloise, Michigan).
-Research Training Fellow, Experimental Neurology, Neurosurgery Department, University of Michigan.
-Recipient, Relm Foundation Special Grant of $3,400. He used the funds to do his postgraduate study in neuropathology at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC (July 1960 to June 1961).
-Chief Resident, Paediatric Neurosurgery, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), Pennsylvania, USA.

Please pardon me, I will digress a little here. It will interest you to know that CHOP is one of the largest and oldest children’s hospitals on earth and it has been ranked as the very best children hospital in America by the US News & World Report for the 5th consecutive year. As at 2012, it was number one in six out of ten specialties, more than any other paediatric hospital in the nation. The hospital, which also does more research studies than any other children’s hospital in America admits over 28,000 children every year and almost 1.2 million are seen at its emergency and outpatient departments. When the Federal Government of Nigeria (even the state governments gan sef, why can’t Lagos or even Rivers or Bayelsa have one? Ehn?) builds massive national paediatric centers across the nation instead of spending N4 billion on the First Lady Mission House or N7 billion on city gates (like who on earth does that?), then Abiyamo might start to take them serious.

-For a population of 170 million, that we do not have a national paediatric hospital of this scale is a shame. I must also point out that CHOP is a charitable, non-profit hospital that survives on the philanthropic donations. If the government of Nigeria cannot do anything useful and tangible, what of all the moneybags and billionaires? Can’t they just collabo and build at least one vast national health center, at least ONE? At this juncture, it is imperative for me to single out Otunba (Dr.) Olasubomi Balogun, CON, who singlehandedly sunk in over N3 billion into the building of the Otunba Tunwase National Paediatric Center (OTNPC) in Ijebu Ode and handed it over to the College of Medicine of the University of Ibadan and the University College, Ibadan (I imagine how happy Professor Odeku would have been if he was alive and present at the ceremony). For a nation with the highest rate of newborn deaths in Africa and the the second highest in the world, we need to re-examine our heads and how we implement our policies. Especially when you know that Nigerians have spent over N1.3 trillion naira buying about 200 private jets in a space of just five years.

– In 2007, there were just 20 private jets in the country but today, they are in the hundreds and virtually every brand on earth are present -Falcons (Uncle Jona of Otuoke spent more than N7.65 billion naira on a French-made Dassault Falcon 7X jet, the first fully fly-by-wire business jet on earth), Gulfstreams, Global Expresses, Hawker-Siddleys, Embraers and Bombardiers, with each going for an average of $50 million (that’s very close to N8 billion). How more sick can we get as a people? But then, what does Abiyamo know? Okay, let’s move on.


-Professor Odeku was a Neuroanatomy & Neurosurgery Lecturer from 1961 to 1962 at Howard University. After this, he came to Nigeria, only to be discriminated against by his UK-trained colleagues who did really understand the mechanisms of American medical residency. Well, the hostility notwithstanding, he trudged on and with time, he was widely admired and respected. He would later make a move for the establishment of a Neurosurgical Unit in the Surgery Department of the College of Medicine, University of Ibadan by submitting a memorandum to that effect. All that he did in his very first year in UCH and started with eight kids by October 1962. Odeku also acknowledged the brilliant efforts of the then-Vice Chancellor, Professor Kenneth Dike and Dean of Medical School, Professor J. C. Edozien. (Nigerian presidents spend eight years or more in power with little or nothing to show for it).


-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 Thursdays 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 (a extremely rare manifestation of extrapulmonary tuberculosis and as at 2012, just eight cases had been recorded so far worldwide in medical literature, see a 19-year-old female patient with it in pictures) and professional palmwine tappers’ paraplegia. In one of his publications, he describes thus:

During a cisternal puncture for myelography, a 45-year-old man with paraplegia suddenly lapsed into apnea, hypotension and coma. He was revived within a few minutes with vigorous supportive measures. Subsequently the study was successfully repeated. A second complication resulted in left hemiplegia, central facial paralysis and dysphasia in the process of bilateral cerebral arteriography in a 31-year-old man with headaches and papilloedema following a head injury. Two months later the facial paralysis and dysphasia had completely resolved and only a 20 per cent, residual left hemiparesis was still evident.

(Sorry, Abiyamo is in the medical field and I couldn’t help it…!)

-A few years later in 1965, his teacher and mentor, Professor Kahn would pay him a visit in Ibadan and they did operations together in an exciting culmination of student-teacher interaction. Kahn even joined him in lectures. This collaboration would later form the basis of his publication in the International Surgery Journal in 1969. It was titled ‘Brain Tumors’. Some of his other works include ”Neonatal Intracranial Teratoma”, ”Congential Malformations of the Cerebrospinal Axis Seen in Western Nigeria. The African child with “Encephalocele” and many others.


-A very lively, refreshingly motivatingly and entertaining speaker, he enchanted his audience as he travelled widely giving lectures and speeches. He was the World Health Organization Exchage Professor of Neurosurgery at the Department of Surgery, Universite Lovanium, Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo in April 1971. There, he also gave outstanding lecturers on different topics of neurosurgery in the developing nations of the world.

-But with all his impressive base of intimidating knowledge, it is very important to point out that Professor Odeku was an extremely humble man and a very humane doctor. At a height of six feet and with a most handsome countenance, he was packed with grace, elegance and disarming confidence. A highly-organized man with a very charming personality and full of humour, he was also very much into the reading and writing of poems. Some of his works of poetry include Twilight and Whispers from the Night (published in 1969). Abiyamo’s favourite description for this man is to call him a PPP -professor, philosopher and poet. Such combinations are truly rare today.
In one of his poems, ”Beyond the Sea” (1955), he glowingly describes his hometown, Awe, which was a small, rural farming community in Oyo State:

Beyond the sea and far away
Is a little shelter
I call my home…
Where the natives track the sun
To their daily bread,
My life began, out of the tropic soil …
My life, my cradle, my home (Twilight, 18)

-The first son of his father, 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.


-In June 1973, he had worked so hard that it took a toll on his health and he had to be admitted at the University College Hospital. By September, he was in England with his family, but his thirst for knowledge and service to humanity made him use the opportunity to dash to Madras, India where he did some research at the Neurological Institutes.
-Now this is the sad part. 1974 was a year like no other for the medical sage and elder. 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. It was a Tuesday and he was just 47.

His resting place.

-His own father had died in June 1969 at the age of 74. He was also devastated by the loss of his mother, and this he captured well in one of his poems, titled ‘Mother’. Weeks after her demise and in the loneliness of his office, he would lock himself up and cry until the wells of tears dried up. He always credited his parents for his meteoric rise and achievements in the medical world. #AbiyamoBojaGboroGboro. But sadly, I guess that atimes, the brightest stars burn out the fastest. Very sad indeed. General Gowon wrote to his wife and widow, Dr. Jill:

… served his country and mankind with singular dedication and a sense of
mission: he was a man of humane disposition who loved his profession
and proved to the world that he was an authority in his field…

Senegal’s first President and his friend, Leopold Sedar Senghor (an accomplished poet too) praised him and his poetic talents, and even made a request for his poems to be translated into French. In his poem ‘How Many Times’ and ‘Blackman’, he urged Africans to stand up against injustice and fight for their rights and self-determination. For those who said it was quite paradoxical of him to marry white women, he replied saying that freedom of association is one way to assert one’s right to self-determination. #Gbam.


-Some of his other poems include ‘The Niger’, ‘Tropical Splendour’ , ‘Tell Them Who You Are’ , ‘Not For My Soul’ , ‘Time’, ‘Shipwreck’ , ‘Go Easy Young Man’, ‘Birds in the Snow’, ‘Sunset’, ‘Sunrise’, ‘Rain’, ‘I Never Knew’, ‘God’, ‘The Hand of God’ , ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Out of Eden’, ‘The Nights I Spent’ , ‘The Physician’ ,’The Cradle’, ‘Chain-Gang’, Crippled’, ‘4th Ventricle’, ‘Syndrome’, ‘The Ballad of the UCH’, Gathering Ash’ and ‘Aequanimitas’. For his kids, he wrote a lot, such as ‘Lenora’, ‘The Pyramid of Innocence’ and ‘Lennie’. Between 1962-1970, he would particularly express much pain and anguish over his collapsed marriage until his second union in 1971. He passionately referred to his first wife as MGM and the poem ‘A Monument for You’ was written for her, and it remains one of the finest pieces of romantic poetry:

There is a monument built for you
In my heart
I made a marble of its walls,
And of its door a gold;
The steps I laid with pearls…
And all your charms and smiles
I placed in a case of gems;…
And everyday it looks serene
I build it more anew;
I take the longest deepest gaze
Of you
To the monument in my heart.

To quote his biographer, friend and also a neurosurgeon, Adelola Adeloye, he had an undying respect for his first wife and was grateful for the love they shared and the children they had. I am emphasizing all these because I am a Nigerian and I know the way some Nigerians think when it comes to divorce. (Trust me, some people can be quite funny with their deductions). The divorce came up because Odeku felt a great sense of loyalty and dedication to fatherland which meant he had to return to Nigeria after 14 years in America and at a time when Nigeria was being freed from the bondage of colonialism, he had so much faith in the new nation and he felt he would be a lot more useful to the Nigerian nation (which is now something else, isn’t it?) and Africa in general. It was in the US that he wrote ‘Hail Nigeria’ which showed his excitement and joy at Nigeria’s independence (the crickets in agbada are eating up the Federal Republic now sha, how sad). Just two years after his return, he was disappointed and dismayed at how corruption, oppression and injustice had eaten so deep into the Naijan society, and the tone of his poems like ‘Tyranny’ and ‘Hostages for Mankind’ changed. But he still had hope but with a tinge of frustration. #Nigeria, kai!

-The origin of neurosurgery in Nigeria, he died at the Hammersmith Hospital, Ducane Road, London and he was buried in the churchyard of the St. Peter’s Church, Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England (see website below for more pictures). Today, his name appears as one of the Graveyard Memorials of the church where he had also christened his daughter, Amanda. He had requested for a simple burial ceremony.

He is survived by his wife, Katherine Jill, a medical doctor and a member of the British Medical Association. Their marriages produced two wonderful daughters and two adorable sons. He had married twice, and on both occasions, to white women. His first marriage in 1957 to Dr. Mrs Mary Gilda Marques (MD, Howard University) produced one daughter and son (Lenora and Peter). His first marriage hit the rocks in because Mary Gilda Marques (also Howard-trained) refused to follow him to Nigeria in 1962 and they had to divorce. In short, Professor Odeku lost his first wife because of his obstinate patriotism, a quality that is so rare today. During the ruinous Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), he treated a lot of soldiers who had sustained head injuries in battle.

-His second marriage in 1971was to Dr. Mrs. Katherine Jill Adcock Odeku (MD, Royal Free Hospital Medical School, London) and it was also blessed with a son and daughter -Alan (October 1971) and Amanda (January 1973). Kate would stay with him till the very end, and at his funeral, she was understandably the chief mourner. She was also working at the University College Hospital where they met.

-In his quest for knowledge, teaching and caring for others, he visited various nations of the world. These include Pakistan, the State of Israel (on a $3000 travel fellowship grant of the Foundation for World Government, June-September, 1950), the United Arab Republic (now known as Egypt and Syria), Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Philippines, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland, Uganda, India and the United Kingdom.

-Overview of Awards, Honours & Achievements

-B.S/M.D. (Howard University, BS in Zoology (1950), MD (1954)
-Licenciate of the Medical Council of Canada, University of Western Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons (LMCC).
-Diplomate of the American Board of Neurological Surgery, DABNS, Grace New Haven Hospital, Yale University (1961).
-Fellow of the International College of Surgeons, FICS, (1966)
-Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, FACS (1963).
-Fellow of Medical College of Surgeons, FMCS (Nigeria).
-Dean, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ibadan, Nigeria (May 1968-July 1970).
-Head, Department of Surgery, University of Ibadan, (January 1969-September 1971).
-Member, Ford Foundation Team of West African Medical Educators (1969).
-Recipient, Howard University Alumni Medal for Distinguished Service, Charter Day Exercises, March 2, 1973 (in recognition of his outstanding postgraduate achievement in medicine and medical education in Nigeria and throughout the world).
-Recipient, Matriculation Certificate, University of London (June 1945).
-Probational Officer, Custom & Excise Department of Nigeria (1946-47).
-Member, Kappi Pi Honour Society, Howard University.
-Member, American Association of Neuropathologists.
-Member, The Harvey Cushing Society.
-Member, Congress of Neurological Surgeons of the USA.
-Member, New York Academy of Sciences.
-Member, Science Association of Nigeria.
-President, Nigerian Society of Neurological Sciences (1970-1973)
-Member, Pan African Association of Neurological Sciences.
-Fellow, College of Surgeons of West Africa.

NB: The BS/MD is a dual degree programme that gives students the opportunity to finish the requirements for the BS and MD degrees in six years instead of the normal eight years. Only a limited number of students who had enrolled in the College of Arts and Sciences are admitted annually into the College of Medicine, Howard University.
-Abiyamo’s submission: if the Nigerian Federal Government does not deem it right to give this patriotic, dedicated and selfless legend a posthumous national honour or award but will shower accolades on individuals of questionable character, then it means Nigeria is just what it has always been -a big joke. I leave you with excerpt of his poem, ‘Tropical Splendour’

Where Nature spreads its morning dews
To tend the greenness on the velvet land;
The tropic sunrise breaks
Through the melting darkness of the clouds
To settle sparks of glistering drops
Upon the dark and clustered leaves,
Like an edgeless tapestry,
Giving lustre to the face of day.



Written by PH

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