LATUNDE ODEKU, The First Black Neurosurgeon

LATUNDE ODEKU, the First Black Neurosurgeon

Latunde Odeku was born on the 29th of June 1927, to the family of Deacon Ladipo and Madam Regina Odeku of Adubieye Compound in Awe. Awe is a small town in between Oyo and Iwo (of present day Afijio Local Government) in the then Oyo Province of Western Nigeria. The birth of Latunde brought an immeasurable joy to his parents because he was the first child his parents would welcome after losing a set of twins and Idowu. The parents would not have known that the little child christened Emmanuel Olatunde Olanrewaju Alaba Odeku would grow to become the first professor of Neurosurgery in Nigeria, the world’s most populous black nation. His father was a deacon in the Baptist church and he later attended the St. John’s School in Aroloya, Lagos for his primary education in 1932.

Little Odeku proceeded to Methodist Boys’ High School (MBHS) in 1945. Undoubtedly, he was the most prominent among the other intellectual creams of MBHS (Siji Layeni and Money Gotlieb). He won prizes in English, History, Geography Chemistry and Biology while in form IV which was his last year in MBHS because he and the other two students had secretly registered for London Matriculation Examination which they passed. Their success further polished the good image of the school and the teachers were very proud of them. He left for America as a beneficiary of the New York Phelps-Stokes Fund Scholarship for Medical Education. 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. Till 1960, he remained a dutiful and intelligent student of Dr. Kahn who was the chief of neurosurgery. Odeku, according to Professor Kahn, was the best of all the residents that he trained and he even co-authored a textbook of neurosurgery with him, Correlative Neurosurgery. Haven received a standard training in Neurosurgery and practice briefly; he spent most of his savings on purchasing neurological instruments which he brought to Nigeria to start practising. For his vast medical knowledge, he was offered a couple of employment which he rejected because of his love for his country. He returned to Nigeria in October 1962, he was already at the University of Ibadan as a lecturer in Neurosurgery where he started the first neurosurgical department in Nigeria.
Odeku met a brief challenge at the University College-of being underrated by the other residence doctors who were all trained in Britain and could not understand American medical model under which Odeku was trained and the problem of space to start his unit. The expertise he displayed in the first set of surgeries he handled made his colleagues come to term with his brilliance. He became a Senior Lecturer in 1963 and a professor Neurosurgery two years after. He held various positions at the University College. He became the elected Dean of Faculty of Medicine in March 1968 and Head of Department of Surgery in October of the same year. His tenure witnessed the expansion of Department of Surgery and Medical School.
He was instrumental in the proposition that sought to establish a Dental School in Ibadan. The New Clinical Science Building was also his creation. As the president of the Nigerian Neurological Society, he was in the vanguard of Pan African Neurosurgical society. He represented his department, faculty and the University in many local and international conferences. As a teacher at the University of Ibadan, he taught Neurology and Neurosurgery with passion that he became a dream come true of any medical student. His pedagogy was superb, his presentations were always explanatory, well-planned and just too clear. He ensured he made his lessons so simple that virtually anyone would understand in an instant-he was a gifted teacher, and his prowess of passing down knowledge was rare. 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. He was always serious with issues of ethics before his students and among his colleagues and indeed he was highly ethical. He was also an excellent writer. He published not less than 85 scientific papers, Omobowale (2008:8).
He published his earliest papers in 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 as well. 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. He authored two poetry anthologies and many unpublished philosophical articles. He was a lively speaker who always won his audience attention as he travelled widely giving lectures and speeches. He was the World Health Organization Exchange Professor of Neurosurgery at the Department of Surgery, Universite Lovanium, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo in April 1971. There, he also gave outstanding lecturers on different topics of neurosurgery and contemporary issues in the developing nations of the world. Odeku married twice, first to Dr Mary Gilda Marques and later to Dr Katherine Jill Odeku. His first marriage was blessed with a son and daughter-Peter and Lerona but it failed because of Mary’s refusal to follow her patriotic husband who insisted on coming to Nigeria to contribute his quota to his newly independent homeland. He married Jill Odeku in 1971 and again the marriage was blessed with a son and daughter, Alan and Amanda. Mrs Odeku was with him throughout and she was the chief mourner when he died. Like his parents, Latunde Odeku died of diabetics on Tuesday, August 1974, at Hammersmith Hospital, London. He was 47 and survived by a wife and four children. As he indicated in his last will to be buried anywhere convenient, his body was not returned home, his remains was buried at the churchyard of St Peter’s Church, Burnham, England on August 27, 1974.
Odeku lived unknown to the macro world until his death. His life was celebrated by his Universities (Ibadan and Horward), many commemoration services were organised in his honour of his memory. Funeral services organised by University of Ibadan was going on at the same time with that of St Peter’s Church in England.

The calibre of people that commemorated with his family defined the ever-hidden greatness and recognition patriotism and hard work. The Nigerian Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowan, his Senegalese counterpart, Leopold Sedar Senghor were among many public figures that expressed that his death was a colossal loss. Today, the UCH central library is named E. Latunde Odeku Medical Library at the College of Medicine; University of Ibadan was named in his honour.

Salaudeen Olayinka

A lover of history

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