Africa is blessed with brilliant and ambitious women who have contributed to the advancement of healthcare on the continent, despite the limitations they face in the male dominated environment. Indeed, since the first quarter of the 20th century, women have striven to be more than mere spectators and have played important roles in the growth of the health sector in West Africa.
One of such female pioneers was Chief (Mrs) Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi. She was the first woman in West Africa to be awarded a licentiate of Royal Surgeon, Dublin in 1938. Accordingly, she became the first female physician to practise in Nigeria. She also became the second West African woman to qualify as an orthodox-medicine trained physician, after Agnes Yewande Savage, who had graduated from medical school in 1929.
Awoliyi was the second president of the National Council of Women’s Societies of Nigeria from 1964 until her death in 1971. Her selfless works and achievements brought her both national and international recognitions, including Nigerian National Honor – Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR) and the award of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).
Background and education
Abimbola Awoliyi was born on 11 November, 1910, in Lagos Island, Nigeria, to the family of Mr David Evaristo Akerele and Mrs Rufina Oyinkan Akerele. She was the fourth child in a family of seven, a respected and devoted catholic family in Lagos, Nigeria. She had her primary education at St. Mary’s Catholic School, Lagos, from where she proceeded to Queen’s College, Lagos, for her secondary education.
After her elementary and secondary education, she proceeded to Dublin, Ireland, to study Medicine in 1929. She graduated in 1938 from the University of Dublin, Cafreys College, with first class honours, earning her medical degree, including a medal in Medicine and distinction in Anatomy. She was then awarded a licentiate of Royal Surgeon, Dublin. Consequently, she became a member of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP) United Kingdom and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology (MRCOG) and a Diplomate of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
Awoliyi returned to Nigeria and became a gynaecologist and junior medical officer at the Massey Street Hospital, Lagos. She later became a chief consultant and medical director at that hospital, holding the position for almost 10 years, from 1960 through 1969. In 1962, the Federal Ministry of Health appointed her as a senior specialist gynaecologist and obstetrician.
Awoliyi was also a shrewd businesswoman. During her career in the civil service, she dabbled into private business enterprise. She owned a 27-acre poultry and orange farm in Agege Lagos, and was a director of a commercial medical store in Lagos.
Philanthropy and leadership
Awoliyi was an outstanding philanthropist and leader. She belonged to a number of professional and charity organisations, where she served as president.
She was the pioneer president of the Lagos branch of the National Council of Women Societies and a member of the national committee of the organisation. As a member, she contributed to various policies and activities of the organisation. She negotiated for the gift of a national headquarters, located at Tafawa Balewa Square and was a consultant to the organisation’s family planning clinic, which later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of Nigeria. She succeeded Kofo Ademola as the second president of the NCWS in 1964.
Awoliyi also served as president of Child Care Voluntary Association, Business and Professional Women’s Association and first president of the Parish Women Council of the Holy Cross Cathedral, Lagos. She was an active member of Lagos Colony Red Cross and the Motherless Babies Home Governing Council of Nigeria.
Dr Abimbola Awoliyi received many awards during her lifetime, some of which include: Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE), Iya Abiye of Lagos, Iyalaje of Oyo Empire, Nigerian National Honor – Officer of the Order of the Federal Republic (OFR).
Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi was married to Dr. S.O. Awoliyi, who was also a medical doctor and they had two children; a son and a daughter. Her husband died in 1965. Dr Elizabeth Abimbola Awoliyi died on 14 September 1971, she was 61 years old.
Dr Abimbola Awoliyi Memorial Hospital, located in Lagos Island, Lagos, Nigeria was built in her honour. The novel titled “Return to Life” (1992) by her son, Tunji Awoliyi, was dedicated to her. She is also mentioned in the book, “Nigerian Heroes and Heroines and Other Issues in Citizenship Education” by Godwin Chukwuemeka Ezeh (2004).