In this interview with Adebayo Folorunsho-Francis, Prof. (Sir) Lanre Ogunlana, former deputy vice chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, OAU) and past president of the PSN (1994–1997), relieved the riveting experiences of his early years, the circumstances of his foray into Pharmacy and his journey to becoming the first African (and the third pharmacist in the world) to win the coveted FIP’s Andre Bedat Award. Excerpts:
What was growing up like for you?
I was born in Lafiaji but grew up in Ita-Faji area of Lagos Island. My father died at the age of 30, when I was only a year and two months old. That left my mother with the burden of looking after four children (which included me). In a nutshell, she became a widow at 28.
Did you grow up with a stepfather?
No, there was nothing of such. My mother did not remarry.She had the support of her parents who stood by her. Her mother looked after us and her father (my grandfather) did the same. My grandfather was particularly devoted to providing items such as clothes for us. He was a tailor of the entire Salvation Army group in Lagos. My mother was a school teacher. She had school certificate but my grandfather decided that she got a higher teacher national certificate from Methodist Girls High School, Lagos. So she took some time off from her teaching career at Tinubu Methodist School.When she returned with a higher qualification, she continued working at Tinubu Methodist as a teacher. I grew up with the other three children in what you can call the ‘last of the Mohicans.’
You were reported to have lost your eldest brother at age 10. Is it true?
Yes. An unfortunate incident happened during the Second World War (WWII). At that time,there was usually the blaring of siren whenever German soldiers were suspected to be close to the Lagos port. On hearing the siren, everyone would run and hide in bunkers.
On this particular day, my eldest brother was on the staircase when he heard the siren. He panicked and started running. Unfortunately, the railing on the staircase was missing. He fell on the concrete floor and broke his spine. Regrettably, that was the end of him. Yes, he died at the age of 10, just when he was ready to go to secondary school. We suffered the first loss at that time. But the perseverance and doggedness of my mother and the support of her parents maintained a steady flow of relief.
I still vividly remember how my grandfather carried his lifeless body. That now left only three of us. My eldest brother (formerly second) was successful and took an entrance exams into Kings College in Lagos and was admitted in 1948. He left the college as a house captain.
With all these challenges, how did you manage your education?
My elder brother went to the same school as I did. Unfortunately and fortunately, he took the entrance exams the same day I did and we were both admitted at the same time. As young as I was, I decided it wasn’t right for me to be in the same class with my elder brother.So I told the principal, MrA. B. Oyediran, my dilemma. He was an affable listener. He was surprised because he knew me quite well as a chorister in our church at Tinubu. I told him I wanted to take entrance exam into Kings College so as to avoid being in the same class with my brother. He consented to the idea.
The second thing was that, looking at where I was coming from, I was seeking means to get scholarship to save my mother the stress of paying for my tuition. I explained that to Oyediran and he quite understood. At that time, I was about 10 years old. He said I could go ahead with my plan to enrol at Kings College. But I insisted that I would only go if I could win a full scholarship.
Somehow, I was only able to get tuition scholarship from Kings College in 1949. I was so cross and started crying. When I went to the principal, he told me not to worry because God probably didn’t want me to go there. As it were, I didn’t take the tuition scholarship because I got a full scholarship from Methodist Boys High School. That was how in 1949, I started Year One in Methodist High School. Of course, the only person who knew what happened was Oyediran. That was how I spent my time in the school from 1949 to 1954 (it was a six-year programme). I was a school prefect and held other positions too.
Tell us about your first job
When I finished my school certificate, I got a job in December 1954 and worked alongside Gabriel Olakunle Olusanya (later known as Professor Olusanya), the late Nigerian ambassador to France.We both went to the accountant-general’s office, just six blocks away on Broad Street and sat for the interview. When we were through, the English man asked us when we would like to start. That was how we got the job.
However, the English man said that he didn’t want both of us to work together. He therefore put Olusanya in sub-treasury, while I was in the accountant-general’s office on the third floor. Having stayed there for some time, we both decided to study at the University of Ibadan and started studying together. Unfortunately I felt ill and was admitted into a hospital 1955. It was the late Prof. Olikoye Ransome-Kuti who was the house master in the hospital.The famous first black US-trained neurosurgeon, Prof Latunde Odeku, took care of me until I got well. I was in the hospital for 26 days. As it were, it changed my life.
In what way?
While I was at the hospital, a young man was admitted and being treated for cerebral malaria. One night, he was almost going to throw everybody out of their bed. I was about 19 years old. I stood there looking at him. Odeku ordered some drugs to be given to him but the drugs were not available. He wrote another one, and it was said to be out of stock. Eventually, they got one after so much stress. That was when I told myself ‘Why don’t you look into this profession?’ Because from what I had seen, the doctor wanted to work and showed that he was hardworking. Unfortunately the end product was not there to complement his work.
It was there I decided that I wanted to be a pharmacist. When I left, I told my brother that I didn’t want to study History any longer but will prefer Pharmacy. However I didn’t do Physics in school, only Chemistry and Biology. I started doing Physics and I went to the British Council in Onikan then. We discussed in the family, and my brother told me that if I found a place, I should go and do my A Level. That was because schools would not admit me because I didn’t do Physics.
So what did you do?
With the help of the Methodist Mission and Oyediran again (who was the Nigerian students officer in London), I got a school. In September 1956, I left Nigeria to do A Levels. I went to Birmingham College of Technology. They introduced me to the Methodist Mission abroad, as well as individuals who took care of me. That was how privilege and opportunity were made available. Fortunately I took the opportunity coming from friends, families, church members and the rest who surrounded me. That was how I grew up. To really find out about me, you will have to remember that my exposure was different but mainly focused on the general meaning of people in my life. It is difficult to delineate what influences my circumstances.
It was reported that you had problem settling down. How true?
At completion of the A Levels, I was unable to make it into any university because the competition was tough. But I was determined to go to Nottingham University because it was big. At that time in Britain, the top pharmacists came from the University of London. So I applied there. I was told that they couldn’t take me because they could only accommodate 48 and I wouldn’t make it. A certain Prof Peacocke, professor of natural chemistry, advised me to get a job in the hospital as pharmacist assistant and study more, and from there re-apply for the January admission(the one I earlier applied for was the June admission).
Eventually I had to go to Lancashire where I applied for pharmacy assistant. The lady I met in charge mistook me for a black man she knew and favoured me along with six other people. You know, you have to look at Providence whenever things like this come up. I had to go to Warrington, a town between Liverpool and Manchester. Fortunately I was admitted and given a job. Really, I must admit that fortune really smiled on me. I thank God for that. With the help of my host and Prof Peacocke, I was admitted into Nottingham University in January.
I sometimes say to people that I cannot boast because I know the circumstances in which I found myself.
How did you start your academic career with the University of Ife then?
When I was in my final year in 1962, the University of Ife had just been established. I recall that Prof Saburi Biobaku and some other Nigerian professors came to Nottingham University. On the invitation of the vice chancellor, I was opportune to meet them because I was in the Students’ Union. After the usual pleasantries, Prof Biobaku told me that they would like me to come straight to Ife. He later sent me a letter to see the London office of the University of Ife for a ticket to come home.
And so I returned home with my first degree and aided by the University of Ife. That was how I came across Pharm.Ifeanyi Atueyi for the first time as a student. I was given a job as a demonstrator in 1963. I arrived at the University of Ife, looking younger than some of the people I was supposed to demonstrate to. At that time, there was a department of pharmacy staffed by English people. There were three Nigerians – the late Dr. George Iketubosin, the late Prof Ayodele Tella and I – in Pharmacology. However, the coup of 1966 changed the leadership and I decided to go for my postgraduate programme since I had spent two and a half years.
Fortunately, when Prof. Hezekiah Oluwasanmi, the late Fajuyi’s nomination to the University of Ife in I966 came around, he suddenly developed interest in me. He discussed my interest with Chief Olu Akinkugbe, who was then a member of the university’s council. Apparently they talked about how they could help me realise my dream. However, my class teacher in Form 6, Revd. Oshinulu whose wife was working with the United States Agency for International Development as secretary of African-American Institute, Lagos,recommended me for the African Graduate Fellowship. When I told the duo of Oluwasanmi and Akinkugbe, they told me that they were already discussing how they could help me, too. They however promised to give me leave of absence to help me pursue my goals.
In August 1967, I got my master’s degree with research and was recommended to go for my PhD at Purdue University, United States. I finished my PhD in March 1970 and returned home in April.
How will you describe pharmacy practice in your days compare d to now?
Something always determines whether you are right or not. We pursue the practice with a view to perfection. People like Adebowale, people like the old Hunponu-Wusu. These are Nigerians who, at that time, practised and, I mean, you would see them as pharmacists. These are people I am pleased with.
Look at the Nigerian Medicine Stores which was formerly on Tinubu Square.I mean those were people who were seriously devoted to the practice. They were concerned about patients getting better. They concentrated on pursuing the profession and providing the services needed. So there was no doubt, the practice of pharmacy was so unique that pharmacists were loved. I would not say more beyond that.
What is your view about fake drugs in Nigeria?
You see, when a profession is diluted with all sorts of things, there will be a problem. We had a focus. When you practise a profession, you will begin to look at what you stand for. When you stand for something, it produces necessary direction and development that are essential.
Drug counterfeiting is an issue which, unfortunately, people are just invariably lukewarm about. They also fail to focus on what is essential – quality. When proliferation came up, it was easy to fake. I went to the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) conference some years ago and my colleague and friend told me that there were some Nigerians who came to them saying they wanted to make aspirin, but that they were bent on cutting down on the quality by making 50 milligram and labelling it as 200 milligram. He was so annoyed that he asked them to leave the premises immediately.
That is how they have bastardised the system. This is because they are making the fakes with the genuine. You know all aspirins look alike. You cannot tell which is which correctly. Nigerians leave integrity to pursue profit and deceit.
Is there any hope of curtailing the problem?
I told you earlier that you cannot teach morals. You can only influence it. You cannot teach values, you can only influence. Both values and morals are God-given. The development of fake drugs cannot be divorced from both morals and values. Any attempt to separate it will prove futile. You are just deceiving yourself.
Unless we change our values and morals to the direction in which morals should hold and maintain a value structure that will encourage sincere and devoted people, we cannot sweep it. So the issue is in ourselves. That is the secret of the whole thing.
What are those subtle challenges facing the profession?
The main challenge facing pharmacy is what you call lack of ‘seriousness of purpose.’ You see, those who are serious and devote their energy into it are doing well. They know where they are going (just like the popular song ‘I know where I am going’).Everybody should play his own part, but do your best. Acknowledge when it is time to go.
When I was the PSN president, I started the ‘President’s Desk’ (a 4-page pharmacy bulletin) and featured it every two month. I did it on my own. I did not use the secretariat or any of the resources. However, at that time, the idea wasn’t in tune with the profession. I remember a time at the council meeting when somebody moved a motion that I should stop publishing the leaflet. I was alarmed because I wasn’t even using the society’s fund or resources. Fortunately another member from the Eastern part of the country stood up and said that as far as he was concerned, the President’s Desk had helped him to be updated and in tune with the profession. He added that whenever he was invited to an event to speak, he always consulted from the leaflet. At that point, there was no reason for me to talk again.
Obviously there was antagonism. There was a motive and I didn’t know despite being the president. What you experience when you are outside is different. But you must have a system whereby there will be some people who wouldn’t be aggrieved with you. It is difficult nowadays because every individual has his own ideas. You must maintain a group. People call such group the cabal. But they are not to be given such a terrible name because it is a thinking process.
People have observed how close you are to pharmacists like Prof. Gabriel Osuide and Dr Philip Emafo. What do you have in common?
That is an interesting question. Emafo graduated from the University of London in 1963;Osuide also graduated from the same institution in 1963. I graduated from the University of Nottingham in 1963.
Emafo was made PSN president in 1991 and I took over from him in 1994. Interestingly enough,Osuide was born on 15 March 1935, Emafo born on 15 March 1936. I was born on 16 March 1936. You see?We have so much in common and we know it. I guess most people don’t know. That is why it sounds funny when I say Osuide is my big brother by just one year. And when he clocked 80 years this year, I sent him congratulatory messages. I also say that Phillip (Emafo) is my senior by one day. We joke a lot about these things but the point is just that people wouldn’t know. Fortunately enough, we have come to a particular profession and we know ourselves.
How active are you in Pharmacy-related activities?
I have been involved in the ACPN, industrial pharmacy (NAIP) and several others. As far as I am concerned, there was no discrimination. I used to attend most of their national conferences. When I was the PSN president, I went to the professional bodies of Nigeria, (APBN). I attended their meetings and was appointed second vice president in my first year. In my second year, I was made the 1st vice president. Eventually I became the president of the association from 2000 to 2002. But definitely APBN was different. I had the opportunity to mingle with many professionals. Well, I did a few things there. But since we are more concerned with pharmacy-related activities, let us leave it out.
Were you given some sort of awards or recognition for your selfless services?
As president of the West African Pharmacists Federation (WAPF) from 1981 to 1983, I was fortunate to be one of the few foundation Fellows. However, in 1990, I received a unique award –the Andre Bedat Medal- from the International Pharmaceutical Federation (FIP) at the 50th conference in Istanbul, Turkey. That was a dream come true because it was an award given to pharmacists who have distinguished themselves in the field of pharmacy. No African had ever won it. I was the third pharmacist in the world and the first in Africa to win it.
Were you not to be a pharmacist, what other profession would you have considered?
I was going to be a historian. But of course that was gone many years ago.