In this exciting and exclusive interview with Pharmanews’ MOSES DIKE and SOLOMON OJIGBO, eminent Professor of Pharmacy and former President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria (PSN), Professor Ebenezer Olanrewaju Ogunlana, goes down memorial lane to recount the events that led him to study Pharmacy and his not-so-smooth journey to becoming a professor at OAU Ile-Ife. Ogunlana, who is the first professor of Pharmacy at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ile-Ife, also speaks about his undying passion for music having worked as choirmaster in the Methodist Mission for so many years. Excerpts
Can you tell us briefly about yourself? Who is Professor Ebenezer Olanrewaju Ogunlana?
I was born in Lagos and I had my early education there. My father died two years and two months after I was born. So, I grew up without knowing my father. Being a school teacher, my mother took care of us. We were four children in the family but one of us died during the Second World War. Then three of us were left and I was the youngest.
I did my post-secondary education in the United Kingdom. I was in Birmingham, where I did my A Levels. After that, I spent some time working and then went to the university. I was at the University of Nottingham from 1960 to 1963.
While I was in England, I had the privilege of meeting many people. Even at Birmingham, I met a lot of Nigerians doing many things. I became friendly with them. Otherwise, I lived a very quiet life but not too quiet. I was introduced to the societal system in the UK through the Methodist Mission. The Methodist Mission gave me support while I was in London briefly. I stayed at the Methodist International house before I moved to Birmingham under the guidance of two professors of Chemistry from the University of Birmingham and they more or less looked after me.
At that time, I did not abandon my passion for music, which I had developed here in Nigeria. I used to be a member of the choir when I was in Lagos. I maintained the same over there. I was a member of the City Road Methodist Church Choir in Birmingham. And when I was in Nottingham, I was a member of the university choir.
What was your experience growing up and what were the factors that helped shape your decision to study Pharmacy?
Well, it was a very strange situation and I believe God had something to do with it. In 1955, I became ill. I was working in the accountant-general’s office – a six-storey building in Lagos. There, I became ill and, usually, they allowed us go on break in the afternoon. So, in the afternoon, I went to the general hospital on the same street – Broad Street, as it is known today. When Prof. Olikoye Ransome Kuti, who was working at the hospital then, examined me, he said I wasn’t going to go home. At that time, he was working with Professor Odeku, who was the neurosurgeon at the hospital then. The two of them insisted that I had to be admitted briefly and looked after.
So, they took me to a ward. The hospital was very busy but they put me in ward E2, which was less busy and had fewer patients. I was given a bed. Interestingly, nobody in my house knew I was admitted because I went straight to the hospital from work. The doctors diagnosed that I had suspected infectious hepatitis, which called for careful handling. So I had to stay in bed.
While there, I watched everybody move around. I took my medications. There were not many drugs for me to take, except vitamins and similar medications to balance my system. Eventually I got rid of the signs and symptoms. However, when I was there, a man was ill and was admitted for fever but he became restless during the night and was going all over the place disturbing. The nurse on duty was a woman, so nobody could control the man. Then Dr Odeku, a tall, strongly built man, came and tried to stop him. He wrote a prescription and took it to the pharmacy downstairs which was on for 24 hours. He was however told that the drug was out of stock. I was in bed, watching. I was only 19 years old at this time.
Three days after that, I was discharged. As we were going home, I told my mother about the out-of-stock experience. I was bitter about it, wondering how someone could go to the hospital and not find drugs to take care of his health condition. I told her I had to consider a career in Pharmacy.
Now, to go back to study Pharmacy was a bit hard because, during my last years in secondary school, I studied mostly arts subjects because I was going to study History. So, I wasn’t qualified because, in the school certificate, I only did Chemistry and Biology; I didn’t have Physics at all. My mother advised that I should go to the British Council office at Ajasa Street on Lagos Island to find out how I could do remedial courses.
When I got there, the Lady I met said there was no point doing remedial courses for a short time because she feared I might not pass. She said I should find a way of getting a school overseas to give me admission. When I got home, I told my mother and the committee of Ogunlana family, consisting of my elder brothers and my mother. They met and decided that I should be given the opportunity to study abroad.
So we started writing to schools abroad and eventually I got a place in Birmingham and Birmingham was a place I found peace. I was very grateful because all the people I met were very supportive. I did A Levels at Birmingham College of Technology and I managed to pass (laughs). Having secured my A Levels, I felt good but was not satisfied with the results. So I spoke to a professor, who was one of my mentors, and he said “If you like, you can repeat it January so you can get higher marks.”
Then I asked myself, what would I be doing from June to January? That arose because my mother financed my schooling. So in order to assist her, I applied for a job as pharmacy assistant in Warrington, near Manchester. When January came again, I was able to write the examinations and I scored higher marks to be able to gain admission. At that time, Nottingham was admitting only 42 students. So you had to work hard to be admitted.
I worked very hard in Warrington to the extent that the Mayor in Warrington decided he wanted to see me. What happened is that the wife of the mayor had come in as a patient to the hospital, and as an assistant pharmacist, I could dispense her drugs. So when she got her prescription – it was a gynaecological prescription – and she was not comfortable giving it to a black face to dispense and wanted to leave. We went back to Mr Millington, the gynaecologist and told him about it and he called her back. So she came back and was willing to allow us to dispense the drugs this time around.
When it was time for the city day, which held once a year, there was a ball and at that ball, I was invited by my boss to come. At the ball, the mayor and his wife were there. So, the mayor’s wife asked me for a dance and we danced. She was amazed at my skill and asked me where I learnt to dance. I said I learnt to dance at home in Lagos. And that was another recommendation which came from the mayor to Nottingham. There were concerns at that time because people from the West Indies had just arrived and there were blacks everywhere. So the mayor wrote to attest that I could be admitted and that was how I got into Nottingham.
At a point in your career, you rose to become the dean of Faculty of Pharmacy and deputy vice-chancellor. In all of these, what would you consider the highest point in your career?
In order to become a dean, you have to become a professor. To become a professor was a big challenge to me because when I applied for the post of a professor, I was not promoted. There was a bit of interest and it was not possible to overcome the interest groups because I had nobody. The situation was such that, over the waiting period, there was a little bit of activities which were very strange, as some powerful interest groups felt I was not aligning with them politically. I was not the only one who had that difficulty but the fact is that they were so strong and determined to make people align with them but I was not prepared to align with them because my mother did not teach me to be subjective.
I had three interviews. The first one I went from the Ibadan campus to Ile-Ife. I was dressed for the interview but when I got to the venue of the interview, Prof. Fafunwa – the deputy vice-chancellor – told me to take my jacket off, that I was going to be in the interview panel. Instead of me to be interviewed, I was interviewing people for the same post. It was so strange.
They advertised the position again because they didn’t get any candidate. Again, I applied. This time, I went through the exercise and after that, I asked a member of the panel how I performed and he said I did well. When the result came out, they said I was not suitable. I became worried and said to myself that if they advertised it again, I would not apply.
They advertised it again and I did not apply. But a few days after Easter, the vice-chancellor himself, Prof. Oluwasanmi, wrote and offered me the position of a senior lecturer in Pharmacy.
Apparently, there was a powerful political office holder at that time who was opposed to my appointment because he had his candidate but Professor Oluwasanmi was determined to do the right thing, so he offered me the appointment on the 1st of September 1973.
In 1974, there was advertisement for professorship and I applied. I was shortlisted. I was called for interview in December and on January 27th 1976, I became a professor. I wanted you to see the procedure I went through. So, I became the first one – the first professor of pharmacy in Ife.
How would you describe life in retirement? How has it been?
I have retired a long time ago. I retired in 1988. In 1989, I set up Lanpharm Laboratory and Scientific Services at Lapal House, which was opened by Prof. Ransome Kuti and he was very pleased. When I opened that lab, it became obvious that whenever I signed a certificate, people recognised it. As I got older, however, it became difficult to continue with the laboratory on my own, signing the certificates but I got a feeling people were not ready to take that, so I had to give up.
Are any of your children into pharmacy or medical practice?
No, I did not advise them to. For instance, my daughter who became a judge, wanted to do Pharmacy. I told her she was good at subjects like English, Government and all the likes, that she was not a material for Pharmacy. So when she wanted to write JAMB, I told the principal of International School, Ibadan which she attended, that she should not be allowed to do Pharmacy. For the boys, one is a scientist, the other is an economist. The scientist is an I.T (information technology) man now.
How would describe you days as PSN President?
I was PSN president from 1994 to 1997. Before I became PSN president, I functioned in many ways at the West African Pharmaceutical Federation. In that case, I had no difficulty getting ready for the job of PSN presidency. It was an opportunity to serve and I served sincerely. I set up a four-paged journal, titled “From the President Desk”, which was used to circulate information within the Society and it helped a great deal.