I started teaching anatomy at 19 – Prof Ashiru, surgeon

Seventy-year-old Oladapo Ashiru is a professor of Anatomy and consultant reproductive endocrinologist who co-pioneered the in vitro fertilisation research in 1984 and his team successfully delivered the first test-tube baby in Africa in 1986.

He talks about his childhood and family.

Excerpts:

How would you describe your childhood?

I was born on November 3, 1950, in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun State. My mother, at that time, was one of the first nursing sisters in Western Nigeria and my father was an inspector of taxes. So, growing up was quite interesting because even though we were from a large group of people in the household, we all did our best to be close. We all grew together; we sat at tables with our parents morning, day and night to have breakfast, lunch and dinner. I remember that we had cooks and stewards who were catering for us and rang the bell for each of the meals. Although my father has had extended family, we still all interacted.

How do you mean?

My father had many wives. That was the situation then. I attended primary school at Christ Church School, Ijebu-Ode. I was also a member of the choir. My mother trained us in the way of the Lord. I had the option to go to any of the secondary schools in Ijebu Ode at that time, but my father was the Chairman of the Board of Governors, Adeola Odutola College, Ijebu Ode. The founder of that college was the late Chief Timothy Odutona, and was very close to my father. They were actually like cousins. He then said that since he was the chairman of the college, it was good for me to go there while my elder brother, the senior, went to Ijebu-Ode Grammar School. I was the captain of the class. I finished blazing the trail and I got the principal’s award for the overall best performing student.

I proceeded to the College of Medicine, University of Lagos. There, I obtained the Federal Government scholarship, National Merit Award. That scholarship paid for my school fees, my tuition and lodging and also paid me a monthly stipend which was almost close to the salary I got as a high school teacher. That was how I got the scholarship and I finished through medical school with the scholarship. Equally, in medical school, I enjoyed the subject of anatomy and I was demonstrating for my classmates, and in the second year, I was appointed a demonstrator. So, I became a student demonstrator in anatomy and I was given some stipends even along that line.

Why did you choose to specialise in IVF?

When I finished my programme at medical school, I went for my residency training, where I did medicine rotation, obstetrics and gynaecology rotation, surgical rotation and orthopaedic, and paediatrics. I learnt every single rotation that I needed to learn. But during this period also, I had worked in the Community Health Department. I also had a mother who had a maternity centre, helping people to conceive. That was where I started developing an interest in reproductive medicine. I did not like obstetrics because I did not like the idea that patients who wanted to give birth didn’t allow my mother to go to church on Sunday. She was limited by what she could do; sometimes, she woke up in the night. Sometimes, we might want to go for a function and she would have to go back because a patient was in labour.

Where did you observe your National Youth Service Corps programme

I observed it in the Nigerian Navy. I was a surgeon lieutenant, which was like being a captain. I could have stayed in the Navy but I realised that I could not become the Chief of Naval Staff because I am a medical practitioner. So, I left. While with the navy, I still went back to the College of Medicine, at University of Lagos, to teach anatomy as a demonstrator. So, during the examination for the students, an external examiner who came from the United States of America developed an interest in me and he said that he would want me to come to his institute in Nebraska Omaha, USA, for my postgraduate studies. I agreed and that was how the College of Medicine gave me a study leave grant to go and study abroad.

On getting to the university, I knew that I wanted to do reproduction. So, that was how I ended up doing my postgraduate work under the supervision of Charles Blake who was an associate professor that had just been transferred from the University of California to become a young professor. We were very close and both of us were dynamic and we were studying research on reproduction. We wanted to know the mechanisms that control ovulation, how some hormones are coming up in the body that will lead to ovulation. That was the beginning of my trend going toward IVF. I’m talking about 1977 when nothing was known about IVF. Although there was some preliminary research, we wanted to know about the hormones’ regulation. By 1978, I had perfected the technique and I’ve characterised the hormones through ovulation. By the time I did this, I was appointed a visiting assistant professor and reproductive endocrinologist at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Nebraska, Omaha. That was the beginning of my movement in this field and my PhD was in this field as well.

Why did you choose to come back to Nigeria to practice medicine?

On two occasions, I went to the US to study and on each occasion, I returned. The first time was when I went for my postgraduate in 1977 up till 1980. As a matter of fact, I was supposed to return by June, 1980. I came back by March, 1980, because I had finished my degree and they wanted me to stay. Charles Blake wanted me to stay in his department and work with him but I was told that the head of my department had a stroke and so, I was needed more in Nigeria. Up till then at the medical school at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, anatomy professors were recruited from India, Europe, and all over the world. I came back; not only did I teach the subject, I instituted a postgraduate training to train many Nigerians in that subject. Today, I’ve been able to train many professors who obtained their PhDs and are now professors in other universities in Nigeria. The reason I came back for the first time was to assist in manpower development in Nigeria.

The second time, I was now a professor and I was working in the IVF in the US. I left the US as a professor on sabbatical leave because I knew that as a black man in America, you are still a second citizen. If you keep doing your work, you will get to a point that you want to reach a high level and there is a ceiling, I never liked any situation in my life where I want to achieve something and there is an institutional obstruction against that. That was the same reason I did not stay in the Nigerian Navy. If I have to be in America as a black person, I have to accept that I can’t be some things because my colour will show at that point.

More importantly, I used to come to Nigeria each time. Even though I was there on leave, I would come to Nigeria to see some patients and to teach the students. Number two is to begin to educate the public that many of these infertilities are preventable and as a matter of fact, there is no need for anybody to be infertile. I realised that there is a constant avenue of education in developed countries, but here, there is very little and there is no sin greater than ignorance. That was how I started the Reproductive Health Magazine and then, I started contributing to newspapers so that people can read and know what they need to do to keep them in good health.

You became a professor at the age of 32. How did you achieve that feat?

First of all, it is the grace of God almighty and, secondly, because I was focused, I knew what I wanted and I knew how to get it. The fact that I started teaching anatomy at an early age was to my credit. To be a professor, you must have been teaching the subject for many years. So, my length of teaching was long even though I was 32 years old. I started teaching anatomy from medical school at the age of 19. That means I had about 21 years of experience in teaching at different levels. Then the publication of my work was plenty, by the time I was teaching, I had done a lot of publication. All these are the things you need to be a professor.

Did you feel any resentment or envy towards you by senior colleagues who were jealous of your achievements?

Yeah, people will always come after you when you are doing something new. I remembered when some of our colleagues wrote to the medical council and reported me and my colleague, Giwa Osagie, that we were promoting test-tube babies, which could not be done in Nigeria (as of that time) but could only be done abroad. So, we were advertising. The editor of The Guardian then, Ladi Bonuola, had to say, “Ah, how can you say that? If a Nigerian goes to the moon today, he will be celebrated; you can’t say that he (Ashiru) is advertising”.

In your decades of handling infertility and record cases, can you recall the most difficult case you’ve seen in your many years of experience?

Every case we treat is difficult because these are people who try to have their baby for almost five, 10, to 20 years, yet have no conception. The very fact that they were not able to have their baby through natural mating means there is a problem. So, you treat each one with that situation and until you are successful, it is difficult. So, none is easy but with perfection and with protocol and with good techniques in your hand, you can reproduce your method so that every new patient gets more advantage from the past.

You earlier mentioned the role your mother played in your decision to be a fertility expert. Did your dad show support too?

In our household of many children, my father doesn’t respect age, he only respects academic performance. So, if you do well in your school, if you come home with the first position, then you can do no wrong with my father. And he used to go to all the secondary schools where his children were and collect the report cards from their principals. One day, he would just call a meeting of all of us and ask someone to read out the reports to all of us. So, those who did very well would be on one side and those who did not do well would be on another side and he would severely deal with them. He was very proud of me and he supported my process all through until the end. I think I had the privilege of parenthood that encouraged me to do what I want. There was a time I wanted to be the vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos and it was my mother and my wife that stopped me.

Why did they do that?

They said that was not what I wanted. They said the VC position was only going to be for a short period and that it was better to continue to do this work of reproduction and help more people to conceive. So, that was the kind of support I got from them.

Doctors handling fertility cases tend to have more female patients and are open to temptations. How have you been able to handle this?

It has been very easy because, first of all, you must show empathy for their condition. Most patients come to you depressed. They had to seek assistance to have their baby when their friends were having theirs without any assistance. So, you need that understanding, you need to descend to their level.

You want to find out why they have not been able to conceive and when you find it out, you will be able to address it and correct them. Once they know that, they will be able to open up to you and tell you what the problem is and you can assist them to correct it. I also encourage them to come to the clinic with their husbands, because we do know that 50 per cent infertility is due to the man and 50 per cent is due to the woman. So, there is no need to just start treating the woman alone. When the two of them (couple) come together, the chances of success is almost double than when you are treating the woman alone. You show them the roadmap that you will follow to assist them.

What do you have to say to the kinds of people that don’t believe in IVF because of their faith?

What I will say is that the Almighty in his infinite mercy says judge not. He is the judge of everything. When we, men, take it upon ourselves to be judging people, we are violating that law that God has set. There is nothing that goes on in science which has not been permitted. If God does not want this to happen, it will not succeed. That knowledge to do it has been granted and has been permitted by the almighty God. When I go into the theatre every day, I pray before I transfer the embryo. The success rate in IVF is not guaranteed, so, you need heavenly blessings to go through it to succeed, apart from knowing your science.

 How did you meet your wife?

My wife and I are from Ijebu-ode. We knew each other from a distance; she is the daughter of late Chief S. O. Sonibare. My father, just like Sonibare, was an Action Group man. They knew each other from Ijebu-Ode and when they were installing the Awujale, he and my father played a role. However, one day, one of my aunties called me; I was working in the Nigerian Navy then, and I guessed that she had wanted me to meet somebody. She just said I should come and see her on a Sunday and I went there and we exchanged pleasantries, then she told me to take her to a place. I took her there.

Where was that?

It was my wife’s house in the Sonibare family. We were discussing, including my mother-in-law. At that time, there had just been a coup that (General Yakubu) Gowon (retd.) and the first-generation military officers and (the late) Murtala (Muhammad) came in as head of state, with (retired) General (Olusegun) Obasanjo as chief of staff. I was telling them what we experienced in the navy during that period. But then, she left. But her mother said she should come and bid me farewell. Of course, we found each other’s interest then I started calling her.

Did any of your children follow your footsteps?

None. They didn’t believe medicine was a lucrative thing, and they believed it was too long a period to study. However, they are helping me with the running of the place, one of them is the human resources director; one is the financial director and the other one is helping with the administration. – Culled from Punch.

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