Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu is a Nigerian- American physician, a forensic pathologist and neuropathologist. He is popularly known for pioneering the discovery of chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) by examining the brain of American Football players while working at the Allegheny County Coroner's Office in Pittsburgh. He later became the chief medical examiner, San Joaquin County, and professor, Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, University of California, Davis.
Omalu was born in Nnokwa, Idemili South, Anambra State in September 1968 during the Nigerian Civil War, where his family was forced to flee to from their home in the Igbo village of Enugwu- Ukwu also in southeastern Nigeria. Two years after Omalu’s birth, at the end of the war, they returned to their village. Before the war Omalu’s mother was a seamstress and his father, a civil mining engineer and later, a community leader in Enugu-Ukwu.
He began primary school at age three, and gained entry to Federal Government College, Enugu for his secondary school education. He made medical school at 16 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He worked in Jos for three years after concluding his specialist training in surgery. Omalu first came to Seattle, Washington on a scholarship in 1994 to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington. In 1995, he left Seattle for New York City, where he joined Columbia’s Harlem hospital Centre for a residency training program in anatomic and clinical pathology
After residency, he trained as a forensic pathologist under noted forensic consultant Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh and became particularly interested in neuropathology.
OMALU’S DISCOVERY: CTE
In 2002, Omalu discovered a condition described as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, CTE, a neurodegenerative disease in the brains of football players caused by repeated brain trauma over time that causes depression, dementia, and other behavioural changes. Popularly known as the “Concussion Doctor”, Omalu made his landmark discovery following an autopsy he performed on former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster. Webster, aged 50, had died of a heart attack after years of depression and dementia that led to him become homeless and to forget how to do basic things, like eating. From the examination Omalu made of Webster and other football players, including Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, he concluded that repeated head trauma from the sport causes a brain condition that leads to memory loss, impaired judgement, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and eventual progression to dementia.
Although doctors knew that boxers suffered brain problems after years of continuous head trauma, it was Omalu who first associated the condition with football players. When Omalu cut slices from Webster’s brain and looked at them under a microscope, he was surprised to see tangled proteins and other characteristic signs of CTE. A year later, Omalu examined the brain of Terry Long, another Steelers legend, who’d killed himself at age 45 by drinking antifreeze, and saw the same picture. “This stuff should not be in the brain of a 45-year-old man,” Omalu later said. “This looks more like a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer’s.” Prompted by Omalu’s discovery, doctors at Boston University’s CTE Centre examined 79 deceased NFL players’ brains and found CTE in 76 of them. Many died by suicide or had dramatic changes in personality after retirement. Still, the overall rate of CTE in all players is unknown, it could be an epidemic or a relatively rare problem.
Omalu’s discovery of CTE raised numerous concerns about the safety of American football, a development that the National Football League, NFL, challenged vigorously. For years, though, the NFL tried its best to hide the evidence about football and brain trauma, and after Omalu published his findings, the NFL attempted to cover the facts and accused him of fraud. He was barred from league meetings on football and the brain, along with other doctors who later worked on CTE. Omalu’s Nigerian descent was questioned and he was accused of attacking the American way of life. But his discovery gained more attention and eventually, the NFL was compelled to introduce a concussion guideline in the game. But the Nigerian’s finding and the subsequent discovery of CTE in dozens of deceased football players subsequently transformed the football world, raising concerns about the safety of American football.
A movie, entitled “Concussion” that is based on this discovery, premiered on September 8, 2015, in which Hollywood star, Will Smith, plays Dr. Bennet Omalu. The trailer for the movie tells the true story of the Nigerian-born doctor’s discovery, and to draw attention to the dangers of football and how the NFL functions. In 2009, the league finally acknowledged the problem and instituted concussion management guidelines, that include neuropsychological testing on all NFL players to help determine when a player could return to play after a head injury. It introduced new protocols to make sure concussed players are properly diagnosed, and donated money for concussion and CTE research.
Omalu obtained his medical degree from the University of Nigeria in 1991, Masters in Public Health, MPH, degree in Epidemiology from University of Pittsburgh in 2004, and Masters in Business Administration, MBA, from Carnegie Mellon University in 2008, and holds four board certifications in Anatomic Pathology, Clinical Pathology, Forensic Pathology and Neuropathology. He has testified twice before the United States Congress and has provided hundreds of testimonies as an expert witness in federal courts and state courts across the United States.
A member of many professional organizations, including but not limited to the College of American Pathologists, American Society of Clinical Pathology, American College of Physician Executives, American College of Epidemiologists, American Association of Neuropathologists, American Academy of Forensic Sciences, National Association of Medical Examiners, International Academy of Pathology and American Medical Association.
Omalu is married to Prema Mutiso, a native of Kenya. They reside in Lodi, California and have two children, Ashly and Mark.