Although Obadiah Johnson was trained as a medical practitioner and indeed practiced for a number of years as the Assistant Colonial Surgeon in Lagos, he is arguably better known for the time spent in the Legislative Council and his role in the publication of The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate.
Early Life and Education
Obadiah Johnson came from a family distinguished for its ecclesiastical, linguistic and literary excellence. The fourth child in a family of seven, he was born on 29 June 1849 in Hastings, Sierra Leone. His educational career began in 1855 at the Day School in Hastings and continued in Nigeria in 1858 as a result of the transfer of his father to Ibadan, Oyo State. After a spell at Kudeti, Ibadan, Johnson entered Faji Day School, Lagos, in 1864 where his brother, Nathaniel, was a school-teacher. In 1868 he left Faji Day School and became apprenticed to a Lagos carpenter. After two years he returned to Sierra Leone to study at the Grammar School in Freetown from which he entered Fourah Bay College in 1877. When that college became affiliated with Durham University in 1876, two annual open scholarships were created to encourage the best students to go. Johnson, who topped the list of the candidates in a competitive examination, went on to pass the B.A. degree in 1879. Johnson, like Davies, Horton and King, studied medicine at King's College, London. A student of exceptional brilliance, he won "all the prizes in science". He gained the MRCS and the L.S.A.(Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries) in April 1884.
After graduation, like Horton before him, Johnson was elected by the Council to the Associateship of King's College. He spent the next two years in Edinburgh, and returned to Lagos in 1886. Johnson spent a year in private practice in Lagos, and another as Medical Officer of Health in Sherbo, Sierra Leone. He then returned to Lagos at the invitation of Governor Moloney, who had wanted to bring an African into the colonial medical service of Lagos. In 1889 Johnson was appointed an Assistant Colonial Surgeon in Lagos. The high hopes that Johnson had entertained for a life-long career in the medical service were stultified by the unhealthy racial prejudices of the time. In July 1897, after suffering these with dignity and resignation, Johnson left, and with his characteristic gentlemanly disposition, gave "no reason for the step which he has taken."
In 1901, at the instance of Sir William Macgregor, M.D., LL.D., G.C.M.G., Johnson was brought into the Legislative Council where he served for thirteen years spanning the tenures of gubernatorial office of Macgregor, Egerton and Lugard. With his perspicacity, Johnson was largely responsible for the great strides that were made in sanitation and environmental health in Lagos during his days in the Legislative Council. In his last years in the Council, the erudite Johnson came into his own. His opinion became invaluable and was sought by many. His voice, not usually the loudest, was often the last on many of the controversial issues.
Johnson wrote a thesis on West African therapeutics in 1889 for which he was awarded the postgraduate M.D. at Edinburgh University. He described the medicine traditionally practiced among West Africans "who have had no English education". Johnson also wrote from his own experiences and from his first-hand knowledge of Sierra Leone and its neighbouring areas and more especially of Lagos and "Yoruba country" where he practiced on his return from Europe. Medicine men were "botanists"; but how in spite of their lack of scientific education, they knew what herbs to use for particular maladies puzzled Johnson. He observed, however, that they selected a herb on account of its resemblance to the diseased part to be treated or from association of ideas in the name of the plant. Thus, for the treatment of excessive vomiting in pregnancy or of excessive fetal movement the velvet leaf (Cissampelos pareira) is used, it being known among the Yorubas as Jokojewhich means "let me remain quiet" or "keep quiet". Johnson remarked on the use of incantation in what he referred to as "speaking the cure". "I do not believe myself in the truth of the same", wrote Johnson, "but what I think very probable is that some few men possess the mesmeric power, and are able by means of it to bring temporary relief of pain as they have been known to do even in civilized countries". Johnson noted that the surgical craft of these medicine men was limited to the use of scarification marks or swellings on painful parts of the body, removal of cervical glands in the treatment of phthisis, blood-letting by cupping, and circumcision of males and females. Johnson was impressed by the common occurrence of multiple births among Nigerians, an observation which has been confirmed in West Africa in general. In the Yoruba village of Igbo-Ora in Oyo State, Nylander reported "a twinning rate of 45 in 1000 deliveries, the highest rate on record in the world , compared with the 11 to 12 per 1000 reported for England and Wales". Johnson also mentioned that, in certain parts of the country, Nigerian women are said to be capable of making antenatal diagnosis of multiple pregnancy, a claim that is still made in contemporary times. The practical advantages of this ability must have been considerable among the Calabars of Southern Nigeria where twins used to be destroyed before the days of Mary Slessor.
Special mention must be made of Johnson's efforts and contributions to the production of The History of the Yorubas: From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the British Protectorate. His love of the Yorubas, his anxiety to get his brother (Samuel)'s work published, and his own intrinsic scholarship, all made possible this monumental monograph on the origin and customs of the Yorubas. The original manuscript compiled by Samuel Johnson was sent to an English publisher who "lost" it. After Samuel's death in 1901, Obadiah resuscitated the manuscript from his brother's voluminous notes. In 1916, Obadiah sent the new manuscript to England, where it arrived in 1918 due to the capture of the ship on which it was carried during the First World War. Finally, the post-war scarcity of paper in England delayed publication until August 1921, nearly a year after his death.
Death and Legacy
Obadiah Johnson died in September 1920, in London, where his remains were buried. Many friends mourned his loss - gentleman, beloved pioneer physician and shrewd legislator whose speeches on all occasions, whether in the Legislative Council or at a church committee, were made memorable by their characteristic "Johnsonian sparkle" such that he was often thought "to have swallowed the dictionary of his English namesake and afterwards taken an emetic”. The role he played in the reproduction of his brother’s opus is of particular significance due to the works’ role and contribution in the preservation of Yoruba culture as well as its status as a work of enduring scholarly value.
Professor Adelola Adeloye“Some Early Nigerian Doctors and Their Contribution to Modern Medicine in West Africa” Medical History, 1974, vol. 18, p. 274-293.
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)
Wikipedia - Obadiah Johnson
Editorial on Obadiah Johnson, The Nigerian Pioneer, 17 September 1920 See n.1
P.R.O. C.O. 147, 115, McCallum to Chamberlain, 13 July 1897.
Obadiah Johnson, 'An essay on West African therapeutics', M.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh, 1889. See n.4
P. P. S. Nylander, 'Twinning in West Africa,' Wld med. J., 1967, 14: 178. See n.7
Ladislas Segy, 'The Yoruba Ibeji Statute', Acta Trop., 1970, 27: 97-145.
D. M. McFarlan, Calabar. The Church of Scotland Mission, 1846-1946, London, Nelson, 1946, pp. 92-93.
Samuel Johnson, History of the Yorubas from the earliest times to the beginning of the British Protectorate, ed. Obadiah Johnson, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1921 (2nd ed. 1966)
T. A. J. Ogunbiyi, 'Memorial service of Obadiah Johnson', The Nigerian Pioneer, 1 October 1920.