When the Bubonic plague broke out and ravaged Lagos between 1924 and 1931, it was accompanied by shock waves of panic and pandemonium throughout the country. The first source of concern was the extremely high fatality rate of the disease (over 90 per cent). So deadly was the plague that many actually considered it a manifestation of God’s wrath and judgement.
The second and more severe source of worry was that the unsanitary conditions in many parts of Lagos then made it easy for the disease to fester and spread. Aside from being the administrative centre of colonial Nigeria, the city had become a major trading hub in West Africa, with attendant overcrowding and grave public health implications.
It was within this watershed period in the country’s history that Dr Isaac Ladipo Oluwole was appointed the first indigenous medical officer of health (MOH) in 1925. As the MOH, he became the primary custodian of public health and preventive medicine. His job was to ensure environmental health and prevention of communicable diseases. Consequently, he had the responsibility to oversee food control and hygiene; public health aspects of housing; prevention and control of infectious diseases; safe water supply and sewage disposal; maternal and child welfare clinics; tuberculosis dispensaries; venereal disease clinics; school health services; and administrations of clinics and hospitals.
Even before his historic appointment, Oluwole had been a notable and tireless crusader for public health. For instance, when the government passed the public health ordinance in 1917 to improve sanitation and disease control in Lagos, it was observed that implementation of the rules contained in the ordinance was hampered by the limited number of trained personnel. Oluwole, who had recently graduated from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, stepped in to establish the first School of Hygiene in Nigeria, at Yaba, Lagos.
The school provided training to sanitary inspectors from all parts of Nigeria. On graduation, they obtained the Diploma of the Royal Institute of Public Health, London. The school exists today as the Lagos State College of Health Technology, in Yaba.
Exploits as MOH
Undaunted by the enormity and unattractiveness of the task entrusted upon him, Oluwole immediately swung into action to combat the plague, also known as Black Death. He revamped port health duties and made sanitary inspection a vital instrument for the control of communicable diseases, especially the rampaging plague. He saw to it that many of the slums, from which the plague had broken out, were demolished. He also saw to the building of a new abattoir to improve food hygiene.
Through Oluwole’s efforts, a department of antenatal and child welfare services was created to be part of the Massey Dispensary in 1926. This was the first measure in the city to create a distinct maternity and child service programme within the Lagos Public Health department. The new antenatal clinic’s major objective was to reduce the incidence of child and maternal mortality in Lagos. From 1926 to 1930, the Massey Dispensary created infant welfare programmes such that were held thrice weekly and in children’s ward.
To enable him further disseminate his public health messages, Oluwole served as a radio doctor and also started school health services, with regular school inspections and the vaccination of children. In 1927 alone, he visited about 57 schools in the Lagos area, where he inspected the sanitary conditions of the schools; a year later, he made similar trips. Seeing shortcomings in the sanitary conditions of the schools, he made vital recommendations for improvement. Subsequently, in 1930, regulations were enacted regarding mandatory sanitary inspections of schools and also health inspection of students every three years.
Also worthy of note, as one of Oluwole’s accomplishments, was the establishment of the West African Board of the Royal Society of Health (now West Africa Health Examinations Board, WAHEB), in 1925. The Board serves to train and certify public health inspectors and public health nurses in the West African sub-region. The Board became the foundation of standards of public health in Nigeria and West Africa.
Background and rise to prominence
Oluwole was born in 1892 to Isaac Oluwole, an Anglican bishop, who was the principal of CMS Grammar School. He briefly attended CMS Grammar School before moving to King’s College. He was one of the pioneer students at King’s College, Lagos when it opened in September 1909. He was elected the first senior prefect of the school.
Shortly after his secondary school education, Oluwole secured admission into the University of Glasgow in 1913, where he studied Medicine. After graduating as MB, ChB, in 1918, he returned to Nigeria, and settled in Abeokuta where he was involved in a few community activities. He set up a general medical centre, where he attended to patients. He established the boys’ scout troop that received the Prince of Wales when he visited Abeokuta. He also later returned to Glasgow for his Doctorate in Public Hygiene (DPH).
Oluwole returned to Nigeria in 1922 when the Lagos Town Council that was previously dominated by Europeans opened their doors to newly elected African members. The new members started to make a push for the employment of an African medical officer for public health in the Lagos municipal board of health. In 1924, the council decided to recruit an African who could speak the local language; Oluwole was elected and further trained in public health administration before he began his phenomenal role.
In recognition of his exceptional contributions to public health, Oluwole was, in 1940, conferred with the award of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). The award recognises outstanding contributions by individuals within their local communities or at a national level.
Oluwole died in 1953 and a street in Ikeja (Ladipo Oluwole Street) has subsequently been named after him.