Meet the only eight Nigerian medical doctors in the nineteenth century (1800s)

By: Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu

The history of Nigerians in modern medicine goes far back than many people know; one reason being that the premier Nigerian medical doctors didn’t have names that suggested that they were Nigerians. There were eight qualified Nigerian medical doctors by the end of the nineteenth century and they were all trained in the United Kingdom. The first Nigerians to qualify as medical doctors were William Davies and James Horton in 1858. They were followed by Nathaniel King (1874), Obadiah Johnson (1884), John Randle (1888), Orisadipe Obasa (1891), Akinsiku Leigh-Sodipe (1892), and lastly Oguntola Sapara, (1895). Among the 8 of them Randle, Leigh-Sodipe, Obasa, and Sapara studied to become medical doctors without missionary or government scholarship. Here are their brief but interesting biographies:

William Broughton Davies (1833-1906) and James Africanus Beale Horton (1835-1883) were both born in Sierra Leone. Davies’s parents were Yoruba ex-slaves and Horton’s parents were Igbo ex-slaves. Davies and Horton were selected by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) for the British Army to be trained as medical doctors in the UK to send them to work in Africa. After became M.R.C.S. of England at King’s College, London, they moved to Scotland where Davies obtained his M.D in 1858 by examination from the University of St. Andrews, and Horton by a thesis from Edinburgh University in 1859.

Horton’s thesis is titled “The medical topography of the West Coast of Africa, with sketches of its botany” in which he wrote about the medical craft among West Africans and the botany of West Africa mentioning some plants which were used in the various countries for therapeutic purposes. This included the bark of the mangrove tree as a febrifuge in the Gambia, the leaves of the castor oil plant (Ricinus Africanus) as a sialagogue among the women of Cape de Verde Islands, and in Sierra Leone, the antiemetic Citrus medicae, unripe pawpaw (Carica papaya) as a vermifuge.

Davies and Horton were commissioned in the British Army as Staff Assistant Surgeons for services in West Africa. They served for about 20 years mostly in the Gold Coast and sometimes in Sierra Leone and retired as Surgeon-Majors.

Another work of Horton is “The diseases of tropical climates and their treatment” published in 1874. The highlight of the book is the chapter on splenic enlargement in which he attributed the then idiopathic variety of tropical splenomegaly (spleen enlargement) to a person’s residence in a country where there is malaria. This was generally accepted years later as the etiological basis of the tropical splenomegaly. He recommended the combination of quinine, cod liver oil, and iodide of iron as a therapy.

Horton is also credited for giving the earliest description of sickle cell anemia which was not known in western medicine until when James B. Herrick first described it in 1910 in the United State after attending to a patient and foreign student of African descent from the West Indies island of Granada. Horton learned about the disease during his service in Ghana where long before the 19th century the disease was recognized to be a dangerous hereditary disease. Though Horton described it in his book under the chapter, “Chronic rheumatism”.

Horton on retiring from the British Army in 1880 took up banking, and successfully founded the Commercial Bank of West Africa in 1882. He died in Sierra Leone after a severe illness. Davies passed his retirement in Sierra Leone where he later died.

Nathaniel King (1847-1884) was the first Nigerian to practice modem medicine in his own country. Nathaniel King was born of Yoruba parents in Sierra Leone into the family of Rev. Thomas King who together with Ajayi Crowther, translated several catechisms and portions of the Bible into Nigerian dialects.

Nathaniel King was one of the four students of the first-ever medical school in Nigeria. Conceived by Rev. Henry Venn of the CMS in Nigeria, A. A. Harrison, M.D established the medical school in the CMS Theological Institute at Abeokuta in 1861. Harrison taught the students chemistry, botany, anatomy, physiology, materia medica, surveying but the school was short-lived.

King later traveled to the UK to continue his medical training. He became M.R.C.S of England at King’s College, London, in 1874 thereafter obtained M.B., C.M. in 1876 and the M.D. in 1979 in Edinburgh. On returning to Nigeria, he started his career as a medical attendant to the agents of the CMS. He later became a consulting physician to most of the European firms in Lagos till his untimely death.

Obadiah Johnson (1849-1920) was born in Sierra Leone. His brother Samuel Johnson also born in Sierra Leone was a churchman and Yoruba historian who claims they are descendants of the Alaafin Abiodun of Oyo. The Johnson family moved to Nigeria when Obadiah was young where he continued his elementary education. He later returned to Sierra Leone he got a B.A. degree from Fourah Bay College in 1879. He went further to King’s College and gained the M.R.C.S. and the L.S.A. in 1884. Johnson was awarded M.D of Edinburgh University after submitting a thesis on “West African therapeutics” in 1889 in which he described traditional medicine practiced among West Africans “who have had no English education”. He described how west Africans named plants according to their therapeutic use citing examples of how the velvetleaf (Cissampelos pareira) is used for the treatment of excessive vomiting in pregnancy or of excessive fetal movement, known among the Yorubas as Jokoje which means “let me remain quiet, or keep quiet”.

Johnson was appointed an Assistant Colonial Surgeon in Lagos in 1889 becoming the first Nigerian “Colonial surgeon” in the colonial medical service of Lagos. He died in September in London.

John Randle (1855-1928) was another Nigerian doctor among the first to be a colonial surgeon. He was appointed an Assistant Colonial Surgeon shortly after the appointment of Obadiah Johnson. Randle was born in Sierra Leone and his father was a freed slave from Oyo in Nigeria, who later moved to Lagos. After Grammar School in Freetown, in 1874, Randle with an ambition to be a medical doctor enrolled as a student dispenser at the Colonial Hospital, Freetown. After qualifying in 1877, he was involved in several public health programs, including smallpox vaccination, and saved almost every penny he made to finance his study of Medicine. He later gained admission into Edinburgh and graduated in 1888 with M.B. and C.M.

Randle was married to Victoria Matilda Davies, eldest daughter of the wealth James Labulo Davies and Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies (Omoba Aina) the Yoruba slave girl who was adopted by Queen Victoria of England. Queen Victoria who was the Godmother of Matilda named her Victoria and gave her a life-long allowance of forty pounds sterling and a “solid gold christening set”. The queen also made a royal wedding gown for her when she married Randle. Randle died in Lagos and was buried in Ikoyi cemetery in Lagos.

George Stone Smith (1863-1940) who later changed his name to Orisadipe Obasa was born in Sierra Leone. His father was the son of Elekole of Ikole-Ekiti and his mother is from the royal family of Akija of Ikija in Abeokuta and they moved to Lagos when Obasa was a youth. Obasa was sent to England by his parents to study medicine where he attended King’s College, Taunton, and later St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London, where he obtained M.R.C.S. and L.R.C.P. in 1891. He commenced private practice in 1892 and accompanied the Lagos Constabulary to the Gold Coast during the Ashanti War by the end of the 19th century. He became an Assistant Colonial Surgeon in the medical services of Lagos in 1900. Obasa and Randle formed the People’s Union in 1908, the first political party in Nigeria, and was nominated member of the Nigerian Legislative Council in 1921. Obasa died in Lagos and was the last of the eight doctors.

Sodeinde Akinsiku Leigh-Sodipe (1865-1901) was the first Nigerian doctor with an African or Nigerian name. he was born in Lagos attended CMS Grammar School, Lagos. He attended the College of Medicine, Newcastle upon Tyne, and obtained the M.B. degree of Durham university in 1892. He returned to Lagos and set up in private practice, He submitted a thesis at the University of Durham on “The relationship between nature and medical treatment with special reference to Native West African methods” and was awarded an M.D. degree in 1897. In the thesis, Leigh-Sodipe predicted that as intercommunication increased, the diseases of one region would inevitably extend to another and stressed the importance of preventive measures as “It is better to prevent than to cure’”. Leigh-Sodipe was appointed an Assistant Colonial Surgeon in the colonial medical service of Lagos in 1896 and he died at the Ereko Dispensary in Lagos.

Alexander Williams (1861-1935) later known as Oguntola Odunbaku Sapara was born in Sierra Leone. His father was a freed slave originally from Ilesha in Nigeria, and his mother from Egbaland, Sapara obtained honors in midwifery from St. Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, London, in 1888 and obtained the L.R.C.P. and L.R.C.S. of Edinburgh, the L.F.P.S. of Glasgow in 1895. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Health. He was also appointed an Assistant Colonial Surgeon in the colonial medical service of Lagos in 1896 when Leigh-Sodipe was appointed.

Sapara is prominent in Nigerian history for his outstanding role in the eradication of smallpox in Southern Nigeria. Sapara was posted to Epe a small town known for smallpox outbreaks as the medical district of Epe in 1897. Several attempted to control the diseases including vaccination and other precautions seemed to fail and the Yoruba cult of Sopona (god of smallpox) worshippers in the town were alleged to be responsible for spreading this disease. To investigate this Sapara joining the cult and discovered that the activities of the cult were causing the spread of the disease.

His report of the investigation in 1909 led to the ban of sopona worship by the colonial government which led to a decrease in smallpox outbreaks. In June 1923, Sapara was awarded the Imperial Service Order for his work on smallpox by King George V. Sapara spent the latter part of his time in the colonial service at the Massey Street Dispensary. Jacob Odulate of the celebrated Alabukun powder, a brand that is over 100 years old was said to have acquired his knowledge in pharmaceutical products as an apprentice under Sapara. Sapara successfully convinced the government to convert the dispensary into the Massey Street Hospital in 1926 before retiring in 1928. He later died at his home in Lagos.

The second attempt to establish a medicals school in 1930, was the Yaba Medical School to train medical assistants and later upgraded to train assistant medical officers. The medicals officers are required to go for further studies to become a doctor elsewhere. The school later become unpopular after the University College of Ibadan which trained complete doctors was established in 1948. The college graduated its first set of medical students in 1960. the early set of students only did preclinical training in Nigeria, after which there were sent to various teaching hospitals in the United Kingdom for the clinical years.

Appreciation to Adelola Adeloye for putting this important medical history together for posterity: Some Early Nigerian Doctors and their Contribution to Modern Medicine in West Africa. Adeloye is an Emeritus Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Ibadan (UI). He was one of the first set of UI medical students to complete their entire 6 years’ medical education locally in Nigeria in 1960 and Nigeria’s second Neurosurgeon in 1967. Latunde Odeku (1927-1974) was the first Nigerian and West African Neurosurgeon in 1961 after training in the united states.


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