Professor Bona Obiorah is a Fellow of the Pharmaceutical Society ofNigeria (PSN), Foundation Fellow of the West African Postgraduate College of Pharmacists (WAPCP) and black Africa’s first professor of Pharmaceutical Technology. In this exciting interview, the erudite professor explains how his desire to study agriculture in 1959 at the University of Ibadan was changed by Providence, as evidenced by the dramatic events that led him to studying Pharmacy, even without applying for it as a course of study. He also reveals his typical routines, since retirement in 1999, while advising the current generation of pharmacists on how to make the best of their professional calling excerpts:
Kindly tell us a little about your background
My early education was at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife), where I got my diploma in pharmacy and, later, B.Pharm. In those days, if you made a first class or 2:1 (second class upper), you will have automatic scholarship to go for a higher degree. So, I went on to the University of London, where I did my PhD in Pharmaceutical
Technology. After that, I returned to the University of Ife as lecturer. In a period of seven years, I rose to become a professor of Pharmaceutical Technology and, by that appointment in 1981, I became the first professor of Pharmaceutical Technology in the whole of black
Africa. I had remained in academia, until 1999, when I retired from the University of Benin.
Since 1999, I have been involved in extensive consultancy to World Health Organisation
(WHO) and other agencies like the Global Alliance for HIV/AIDS. I have published extensively in notable journals in pharmacy and other areas. It has been a very pleasant experience being in academia. I have worked in the hospital for a few years. I was in the hospital service when the war broke out. It was after four years that I left hospital service.
How would you describe your days in university service?
While I was in university service, I always advised my students that they must learn to crawl before they can walk. The problem with young people these days is that they are always in a
hurry, and this has created some of the problems we have in Pharmacy. For example, when I was at OAU and UNIBEN, students were always reluctant to go to the University College Hospital, Ibadan, because they were working seven days a week and they wouldn’t want to
miss weekends. I used to tell them that if a hospital could dispense with their services on Saturday and Sunday, it can dispense without their services altogether. My research interest in the area of Pharmaceutical Technology has always been in formulation design. That is one of the areas in which I was working with WHO, using Nigerian additives, Nigerian starches, and Nigerian corns. Some of my students, in their graduate work, researched into some of these additives, got their PhDs and I’m happy to say that, at least, four of them that went into academia and become professors in the area of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Technology. The founder and publisher of Pharmanews, Sir Atueyi, was my classmate right from my year one at the university and we graduated the same year. He had a 2.1 and I
had same, too. He is known all over the world for what he is doing in pharmaceutical journalism. So, there is dignity in labour and you have your self-respect.
As an elder in the profession, I will want to harp on the issue of respectability. I will continue
to harp on the issue of dignified labour.
When would you describe as the most memorable point in your career?
During my university service, I became dean of the faculty of pharmacy, University of Benin
in 1984 and I had a second term of two years in 1986. When I finished as dean, after the four year stint, I continued mainly with research activities. But in 1993, I was appointed through election in senate as deputy vice-chancellor, Administration, at the University of
Benin. This ran from 1993 to 1995 and I was re-elected for a second term in 1995 till 1997.
It was after serving as deputy vice-chancellor, that I said I had paid my dues in the university
service, after more than 30 years as an academic. It was after that, that I started serving as consultant for different organisations. Outside academia, I was active in the Catholic Church. I became a Knight of St John (KSJ) in 1988 and I was also involved in the running of tertiary institutions. I became the chairman of the governing council of Anambra State College
of Education, which was in Awka then but now relocated to Nsugbe.
What exactly informed your decision to study Pharmacy at a time when there were quite a few people one could imitate in the field?
I would say it was Providence. I applied to study Agriculture at the University of Ibadan and I was admitted in 1959. However, while preparing to go to Ibadan, someone told me he saw my name under the Eastern Nigerian Government scholarship for Pharmacy. I did not know what Pharmacy was and I did not apply to Eastern Nigerian government for scholarship to
study Pharmacy. So, I went to the Ministry of Education in Enugu and was told that they needed students that would study Pharmacy and since I had a very solid result in the sciences, I was one of those selected by the Eastern Nigerian Government to study Pharmacy. I went around asking what Pharmacy was from older people who had an idea of the course. In any case, I needed a scholarship to go further in my education; so I accepted the offer. That was how I found myself in Pharmacy and, in a way, I never regretted accepting that scholarship.
Even going into Pharmaceutical Technology was an act of pure pr o v i d e n c e because my interest for postgraduate work was Pharmacology but again the vice chancellor of the University of Ife invited me to his office and said, “I will not send you to London to study P h a r m a c o l o g y. We are in dire need of lecturers in Pharmaceutics. So if you want to go overseas to do postgraduate work, it has to be in Pharmaceutics.” Just coming out of the civil war at that time, it was very necessary for me to get out of Nigeria at that time for whatsoever reason. So I accepted to go for a postgraduate study in Pharmaceutics, which, in fact, was an area that in which I thought was weakest. Pharmacology was my strongest area. So I went to London and worked very hard in Pharmaceutics. In fact, I was made to do the qualifying exams, I excelled and I did straight PhD and I didn’t have to do Masters.
When you look at the current state of pharmacy practice these days, what are the areas you will like to see improved? Or are you satisfied with the current state of
practice in Nigeria?
Thank you for this question. Pharmacy is a very noble profession. For one to be a real pharmacist, you must have eyes for details. When a doctor makes a mistake, he kills the patient. When a pharmacist makes a mistake, he may kill thousands of people. Some years back, a young pharmacist at the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital made a mistake when he was formulating paracetamol syrup. What he did was, instead of picking propylene glycol
as a solvent for the paracetamol which is very insoluble in water, he picked ethylene glycol.
The two are glycols. Propylene glycol and ethylene glycol. Propylene glycol is a very safe
additive but an ethylene glycol is a deadly poison. He made up the bulk paracetamol syrup and, within days, children were dying like flies and it was on checking the ingredients he used, that it was discovered that he had mistakenly picked ethylene glycol, instead of propylene glycol. Before this error was discovered, several children had died. If an architect makes a mistake in design, when people pass, they will say what kind of useless architect designed this building and that can be corrected. But if a pharmacist makes the type of serious mistake that was made in the preparation of that paracetamol, hundreds of children can die. In my time at the hospital, pharmacists were very highly respected. It was during my time that Pharmacy was moved from being a technical grade to professional grade and if you had your B.Pharm, you would be classified as a pharmaceutical officer.
What you find these days, however, is lack of dedication. The rush to make quick money.
The young pharmacist is in the hospital but his mind is outside to make quick money. The same problem is what we have in retail or community pharmacy. Some of the young pharmacists who go into retail pharmacy do this register and go. And register and go is such
a dangerous thing because even the trader who is employing the young pharmacist does not stay in the shop. He goes in the evening to collect the money for the day. So, the patients are exposed to danger. But one thing about the current hospital pharmacy practice in
Nigeria is the introduction of clinical pharmacy which has moved Pharmacy from product orientation to patient-orientation. So, the young pharmacist with the PharmD now spends time with the patient, interacting and explaining everything about the pharmaceutical product being given to the patient – and not just pushing out the drugs through the window in a small cubicle. So, hospital pharmacy is now very well advanced and will continue to advance.
Very soon, you will be 80 years and that is a milestone in the life of an individual.
What activities do you engage in to keep yourself busy? Also which of your achievements has given you the biggest sense of fulfilment?
Looking back in my life, I have no regrets whatsoever. I don’t have any regrets studying pharmacy. One of the greatest gifts I have from God is the gift of good friends. I
don’t have too many friends but the few I have, we have been friends since childhood. I have mentioned your Managing Director, Sir Ifeanyi Atueyi. One of the things that give
me the greatest pleasure is the opportunity to have been in the factory for the production
of manpower in Pharmacy. When I attend pharmaceutical conferences, I see some of these
my children and grandchildren doing well in different aspects. That gives me great pleasure. During my travels abroad, maybe I’m getting onto a train or a bus, somebody
grabs my bag and says, “Sir, please let me help you.” These are faces I can’t remember. In fact, one a few occasion, they take my address and before you know it, they are
bringing a lot of gifts for me, drop in my place and disappear. Sometimes, they don’t even leave their names.
Talking about keeping busy, the only outdoor activity I do now is walking. I keep fit by walking. So I do a lot of walking but within my compound. I go round my compound about 10 times in the morning. That gives me about that two kilometres. Then after walking, I do a workout. This keeps me going health-wise and I am looking forward to being 80 in a few months’ time. I really believe that since I still have good health, I will continue with my exercises. Of course, I still do a lot of reading. Reading gives me great joy. The last few months we have been in this coronavirus pandemic, I have increased my reading and I have also slightly increased my workout because the lockdown is not easy for anybody.