Dr Oguntola Sapara was one of the pioneers of modern medicine in Nigeria with his numerous and varied accomplishments pertaining to health care in Nigeria.
Early Life, Family and Education
Oguntola Sapara was born Alexander Johnson Williams in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on June 9, 1861. His father, a liberated slave, was originally from Ilesa, Osun State and his mother, Nancy, was from Egbaland, in Abeokuta, Ogun State. His sister, Clementina Foresythe, died in labour in 1877, and it is said that it was this incident which led Sapara to study medicine (particularly midwifery). His brother, Christopher, became the illustrious Honourable Sapara Williams - jurist, advocate, legislator, politician and the legendary leader of the bar in Lagos.
Sapara was educated at the Buxton Memorial Day School and the Wesleyan Boys' High School in Freetown. When his family moved to Lagos in 1876, he attended the Lagos Church Missionary Society Grammar School until 1878, and was apprenticed to a Lagos printer in early 1879. However, a medical career was his objective and he abandoned his new trade to enter the Colonial Hospital as an unpaid assistant dispenser. In 1888, he left for England and enrolled at St Thomas's Hospital Medical School, London (now King's College London School of Medicine). There he gained honours in midwifery before going on to Scotland where, in 1895, he obtained the Physicians and of Surgeons of Edinburgh, the Licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow (qualifications which allowed him to practise medicine), and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Health (now the Royal Institute of Public Health).
Almost immediately Sapara returned to Lagos, where in January 1896 he was appointed Assistant Colonial Surgeon in the medical department of the Lagos Colony, where he served in many stations without interruption until his retirement in January 1928. During his long and fruitful career, Sapara made vital contributions to social and preventive medicine at all of the medical stations in Southern Nigeria. He initiated the fight against the "filth and jungle" of Ebute Metta in 1900 and organised the building of a first public dispensary at Saki, Oyo State in 1901. When Sapara took over the medical district of Epe in 1897, the village was notorious for outbreaks of smallpox. Every public health measure had failed to control the epidemics, and the villagers had resigned themselves to the scourge they believed would sooner or later destroy them. It was then that Sapara discovered a cult of smallpox worshippers at Epe alleged to be responsible for the dissemination of the disease. The intrepid Sapara resorted to the unorthodox approach of joining the cult in order to learn their modus operandi, which formed the basis of a classic report written in 1909.
Sapara wrote in his report:
In 1897 when I took charge of Epe district, the town of Epe was known as the hotbed of small-pox epidemic. Finding that vaccination and other precautions seemed to fail, I joined the cult and having got into the mysteries I summoned the small-pox priests together, and threatened them with prosecution for disseminating the disease and used perchloride of mercury solutions. They left the town through disgust and since then, up till the time I left Epe, vaccination had scope for doing good work and then the town enjoyed immunity from small-pox, hitherto unknown.
Governor McCallum lost no time in implementing the recommendations of Sapara's smallpox report. The Witchcraft and Juju Ordinance became law, and made the worship of smallpox punishable by imprisonment. It led to an immediate and substantial decrease in smallpox outbreaks, and was a personal triumph for Sapara.
Sapara was also at the forefront of the campaign launched at the beginning of this century by the government to reduce infant mortality in Lagos. He organised a society which had as its sole mission the scientific training of African midwives. He gave public lectures to stimulate the interest of Nigerian girls in midwifery; he sent his daughter to England to train as a midwife, and also financed the nursing education of a number of Nigerian women in the United Kingdom. As Chairman of the Health Week Committee, Sapara led the successful fight against the bubonic plague which struck Lagos in 1924. He spent the latter part of his time in the colonial service at the Massey Street Dispensary in Lagos. On account of its central position, the dispensary served a large portion of Lagos. Sapara successfully convinced the government to convert the dispensary into the Massey Street Hospital, which was opened by Governor Graeme Thomson in 1926. In commemoration of Sapara's services, the road behind the hospital was named Sapara Avenue. After his death, a plaque was erected in the hospital to his memory by Lagos’s medical practitioners.
Work and Social Concerns
In 1918, at a conference convened to fight the alarming rise in the incidence of tuberculosis in Lagos, the most valuable contribution was a joint paper by JM Dalziel and Oguntola Sapara. The authors pointed to overcrowding, defective ventilation and mass ignorance, and prescribed corrective measures not only to combat tuberculosis in particular, but in general to improve the environmental sanitation of Lagos. During his professional life, Sapara expended time and money to make a rational and scientific study of herbal medicine. Some of his medicinal preparations were patented and are still marketed today by reputable firms in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the only records that he left of his experience with herbal medicine were the scanty, sometimes misleading "casual information to friends and colleagues, and his own irregular jottings." James Churchill Vaughan, another prominent early Nigerian doctor, when attempting to collate the works of Sapara, lamented this loss, commenting that "a record of cases treated by Sapara with native plants and his observation thereon would have been a wonderful heritage to students of medicine."
As an African, Sapara faced discrimination during his lifetime. In a report to the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines' Protection Society, Sapara noted that European medical officers were uncomfortable when ranked below African doctors, and at a 1901 conference, some had described this as an "indignity". African medical officers were also paid less than their European colleagues. When WH Langley, the principal medical officer in Nigeria, was asked about expanding the scope of work for African doctors, he responded by attacking their professionalism; in Sapara's case, he brought up the fact that Sapara had allowed clerks to take longer sick leaves than was allowed by government policy.
While visiting London in 1912, Sapara gave financial assistance to the struggling Pan-Africanist African Times and Orient Review published by Dusé Mohamed Ali, the noted African nationalist and founder of The Comet newspaper (which was later edited by Chief Anthony Enahoro). Sapara was on the list of invitees from West Africa to the Fourth Pan-African Congress held in New York in 1924, although it is not certain if he attended.
Death and Legacy
Sapara received numerous accolades for his great contributions over a thirty-two year period of service, the longest of any Nigerian colonial surgeon of his time. In June 1923, King George V awarded Sapara the Imperial Service Order with special reference to his smallpox activities. Three months later, the Alake of Abeokuta made him the Honorary Consulting Physician to the Egba Native Administration. Early in 1924, in an impressive ceremony, the Owa of Ijeshaland, the paramount ruler of the home of the Saparas, decorated him with the insignia of Bashemi, a chieftaincy title, in special recognition of his contributions to medicine. This ceremony was one of the most auspicious events in Sapara's career, as for years he had yearned to return to his place of origin.
Sapara died at his home in Lagos in June 1935. The famous Jùjú musician Tunde King played at his wake. A portrait of the Oloye Sapara by Aina Onabolu hangs in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos.
- A. Adeloye, “Some Early Nigerian Doctors and Their Contribution to Modern Medicine in West Africa,” Medical History, 1974, vol. 18, p. 274-293.
- National Centre for Biotechnology Information
- Wikipedia article on Oguntola Sapara
- O. Adewoye, “Sapara Williams: the lawyer and the public servant,” J. hist. Soc. Nigeria, 1971, 6: 47-65
- O. Sapara, “Report to the Colonial Government on smallpox epidemic in Yoruba country,” Lagos, September 1, 1909.
- Nigerian Daily Telegraph, June 5, 1935.
- A. Deniga, African Leaders, Lagos, African Church Press, 1919.
- J.M. Dalziel and O. Sapara, “Leaflet on tuberculosis,” Lagos Weekly Record, September 6, 1919
- A. Adeloye, “West African therapeutics as seen by some Nigerian pioneers of modern medicine,” J. med. pharm. Marketing, Nigeria, 1972, i: no. 2., 7-10.
- Nigerian Pioneer, June 22, 1923.
- Nigerian Pioneer, November 21, 1924.
- Nigerian Pioneer, October 8, 1926.
- J.C. Vaughan, “Native medicine,” The Service, September 14, 1935, 20-21 See n.9