Kofoworola Pratt: Africa’s Florence Nightingale

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Chief (Dr) Kofoworola Abeni Pratt might have spent only three years at the Nightingale School of Nursing, in London, but those few years proved to be significantly momentous for her and the world at large. That formative period not only catalysed the birth of her long cherished dream of becoming a certified nurse but also galvanised her to take her place among the most iconic health practitioners of all time.

Looking at Pratt’s avalanche of achievements as a professional nurse, one cannot but conclude that for every year of her stay at the prestigious training institution, she thoroughly imbibed the character, competence and charisma of Florence Nightingale. Thus, by the time she graduated, she had literally transformed into an African replica of the revolutionary founder of modern nursing.

Incidentally, even Pratt’s admission into the Nightingale School was, in itself, a noteworthy accomplishment. She was the first black person in the world to achieve such a feat. And from then on, she would go ahead to record a string of other ground-breaking achievements in nursing practice, training and leadership, both in the United Kingdom and in other parts of the world, especially her home country, Nigeria.

Kofoworola Pratt

To start with, following her historic admission and graduation, she went on to become the first black nurse to work for the British National Health Service (NHS). Few years later, upon her return to Nigeria, she successively became the first Nigerian ward sister and later first Nigerian matron of the University College, Ibadan. She was the first Nigerian Chief Nursing Officer of the Federation; first black woman to become vice-president of the International Council of Nurses; first chairperson of the Nursing Council of Nigeria; and first nurse to be made Commissioner for Health (Lagos State).

A dream that refused to die

Interestingly, just like the Scottish Nightingale, Pratt’s hopes of ever becoming a nurse had been nearly truncated by parental pressure, until a twist of fate redirected her back to the path of destiny. Pratt had been born into an influential Lagos family in 1915. She attended CMS Girls School, Lagos, where she graduated with Cambridge certificate in 1933.

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Pratt’s aspiration was to be a nurse, but her father, Augustus Alfred Scott, was vehemently against the idea. So, she decided to be a teacher, instead.She attended United Missionary College, Ibadan, where she obtained a diploma in Teaching in 1935. Thereafter, she taught at CMS Girls School, Lagos, from 1936 to 1940. Having apparently settled for the teaching profession, it would seem that Pratt’s nursing dream had been dead and buried for good; but, in truth, she found no fulfilment in teaching and desperately sought a way to pursue her true passion.

The much desired breakthrough came for Pratt when, she got married to a pharmacist, Eugene Samuel Oluremi (Olu) Pratt, in 1941. Being in the health sciences himself, Mr Pratt was an active supporter of his wife’s nursing dream. Moreover he also had the desire to qualify as a medical doctor. So, a few years after their union, he travelled to London to make enquiries St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London (where he would later be trained as a certified medical practitioner). He also seized the opportunity to present his wife’s case to the matron of St Thomas’ Hospital, London, where the Nightingale school was then based. His efforts were successful, paving  way for Pratt to travel to the U.K., in 1946.

Foretaste of excellence

Pratt’s sojourn in London was quite eventful, productive and memorable. According to the Nightingale Society, “She, as well as doing the regular training, getting excellent marks, went on to obtain extra certificates in midwifery (and worked as a midwife), tropical diseases, the ward sister’s course, and, on a return trip, hospital nursing administration, these last two at the Royal College of Nursing.”       Against all odds – which included the challenge of racial discrimination – Pratt served meritoriously, ultimately endearing herself to her fellow workers and her patients. She passed her preliminary state exams in 1948 and her finals in 1949, qualifying as a State Registered Nurse in 1950. The matron’s report on her attested that she “mixed well with her colleagues, with whom she is very popular. Colour has been no bar.”

Following her certification, Pratt worked under the NHS. She served as a staff nurse at Evelina Children’s Hospital (Guy’s), in 1952; then as a charge nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital, in 1953.

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Service to homeland

Spurred by some British nursing leaders, Pratt returned to then pre-independence Nigeria in 1954 to render her services to her country. University College Hospital, Ibadan, which had Nigeria’s first medical school, was the leading hospital and her natural choice. She applied to serve as ward sister but was initially rejected by the British doctor she was to work with, as he was already used to working with his fellow expatriates. However, at the insistence of the then matron of the hospital, Pratt got the appointment. Interestingly, as reports have it, soon after she began working with the doctor, he came to describe her as the best ward sister he had ever had, in the U.K. or Nigeria.

Being an exceptional nurse, it did not take long for Pratt to rise through ranks at the foremost hospital. In fact, she became the arrowhead for what came to be known as “Nigerianisation” of nursing practice in the country, as she steadily assumed positions that had hitherto been reserved for British expatriates. From being the first Nigerian ward sister, she rose to become first Nigerian assistant matron, administrative sister (1955-1957), deputy matron (1957-1963), and, in 1964, matron. While an administrative sister, she co-founded the Professional Association of Trained Nurses in Nigeria (PATNON), in 1956, and was its president from 1957 to 1973. Also, within the same period, she led the first and second Nigerian delegations to the International Council of Nurses (ICN) Congress, in Rome (1957 and 1961).

An indefatigable reformer, Pratt, in just one year of becoming a matron, facilitated the creation of the first school of nursing at University of Ibadan (1965), followed by the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Within the same period, she became 3rd vice-president of the ICN (1965-69); and foundation Fellow of the West African College of Nursing.

Two years after her appointment as matron of UCH, the Federal Government of Nigeria appointed her as chief nursing officer of the federation – entrusting the responsibility for the direction and development of nursing services in the entire nation upon her. Pratt creditably served in this capacity, from 1965 to 1972. A highlight of her tenure was the facilitation of the creation of additional schools of nursing nationwide.

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In 1973, Pratt was invited by the military governor of Lagos, Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson, to join his Cabinet as Commissioner for Health. While in office, she was outstanding in achieving reforms for doctors, nurses and in public health. According to the Nightingale Society, “During her time in office (only two years) she saw to the expansion of healthcare services, the building of more hospitals, and the equipping of boats to take healthcare services to villages best accessible by water. She made the provision of better conditions for nurses a priority, culminating in the building of a fine nurses’ residence, long delayed by previous governments, dubbed the “Nurses’ Hilton.”

Awards and recognitions

With her litany of accomplishments, some which have not been captured here, it is no surprising that Pratt received massive grants, recognitions, honours and awards in Nigeria and beyond. She received grant from the Carnegie Foundation, to visit nurse training institutions in Jamaica, the United States and Europe (1969-70). In 1972, she was made officer of St John’s Council, UK. One year later, in 1973, she was awarded the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve – the Florence Nightingale Medal – by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In 1975, Pratt was awarded a chieftaincy title –the “Iya Ile Agbo of Isheri” – for services to Nigeria. In 1979, she was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing; and, in 1981, was awarded a national honour – Order of the Federal Republic.  That same year, the University of Ife awarded her an honorary doctorate of laws degree.

Pratt passed on in 1992, but her achievements and legacies not only continue to prove vitally beneficial to public health but have continued to inspire several more health practitioners – especially nurses – to pursue professional excellence, against all odds.

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