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Kofoworola Abeni Pratt may not be a household name in the UK but to many in the worldwide nursing family she is an inspiration – a pioneering leader who fought patriarchy and tradition to pave the way for those who followed.

Her achievements have recently been recognised by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), a record of the most influential and significant figures to shape British history. At the suggestion of the RCN History of Nursing Forum, the ODNB asked nurse entrepreneur and RCN Fellow Dr Ruth Oshikanlu to compile an entry on Kofoworola. Ruth was honoured to accept and says writing about such a “wise and politically astute woman” provided her with further inspiration for success in her own career.

Nursing ambition

Kofoworola was born in Lagos, Nigeria, either 1914 or 1915. Brought up in the Anglican faith, she attended a church missionary school and later gained a teaching diploma, returning to her old school to teach British history. But when her pharmacist husband moved to London to study medicine, she too switched professions, retraining as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital.

Ambitious and driven by learning, Kofoworola followed her nurse training with a succession of further achievements. She qualified as a midwife, then gained a certificate in tropical medicine. Back in the early 1950s, the RCN ran a ward sister course which she completed before moving into children’s nursing.

In the few short years before she returned to Nigeria in 1954, she was very well qualified and gained considerable experience as a ward leader. Her insatiable appetite to learn saw her return to London in 1956 where, again through the RCN, she gained a diploma in hospital nursing administration.

As soon as Nigeria gained independence, she took her opportunity

World traveller

She then travelled widely, funded by grants, broadening her nursing experience in the United States, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.

Back in Nigeria, Kofoworola found a country in transition – from British rule to independence – although it remained male-led and male-dominated, Ruth says. “But she capitalised post-independence, using her talent and rising. As soon as Nigeria gained independence, she took her opportunity.”

In 1964 Kofoworola was appointed matron at University College Hospital in Ibadan, the first Nigerian nurse to hold that position, which was previously only open to white British nurses when Nigeria was under colonial rule. The following year, she became chief nursing officer in the Nigerian Ministry of Health and was later made commissioner of health for Lagos.

Committed to public service and raising the profile of nursing, she helped establish a professional association for nurses in Nigeria and founded a journal, Nigerian Nurse.

African leader

There were many broader accomplishments too, which helped cement Kofoworola’s place as a nursing leader of international significance.

She led Nigeria’s first delegation to the congress of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) and was the first African to serve as a vice president of the ICN. As an advocate for the rights of women and children, she also headed the Nigerian delegation attending the United Nations’ first world conference on the status of women, held in Mexico City in 1975.

And for a decade she was a member of an expert panel that advised the World Health Organization on nursing.

She’s always been a role model for me because of all she accomplished

Widespread recognition

Kofoworola’s achievements brought widespread recognition, including the Florence Nightingale medal awarded by the International Committee of the Red Cross and, in 1979, an honorary fellowship of the RCN.

Rush Oshikanlu

Above: RCN Fellow Dr Ruth Oshikanlu 

Ruth, who was also born in Nigeria, says the country’s nurses are still inspired by all that Kofoworola achieved. “She’s really well known in Nigeria because of the legacy she left. She's always been a role model for me because of all she accomplished.”

And, in the same way that Kofoworola had broad horizons, Ruth would like others in the profession to look beyond their own localities and countries and take in the wider view.

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re facing global challenges and we need to start thinking globally. How can we solve each other’s problems and join forces to find solutions?”

Nursing staff could also take a lead from the manner in which Kofoworola spoke up for and promoted the profession.

“When I look at the state of nursing, it saddens me,” Ruth says. “We are talented, skilled individuals and yet we don’t know our own worth. In the pandemic, for example, nurses led but I felt we could have led more. It’s about how we use our voice to influence.”

Inspiring legacy

Kofoworola died in Lagos in 1992. For Ruth, one reason she continues to inspire is that she was fearless about being first.

“The beauty of being first is that we give others permission to do the same. People realise it can be done and then they go further. And that’s what she did for nursing, not just in Nigeria but internationally.”

As Ruth’s entry about Kofoworola in the ODNB puts it: “Her achievement within a patriarchal society was testimony to her dedication and hard work in the face of disapproval for challenging a status quo reinforced by cultural norms. She was often referred to as the lady with many ‘firsts’ and the 'African Nightingale'."

Nursing stories throughout history

When former RCN President Betty Kershaw met the chief editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) some years ago she suggested there were not enough nurses included in the dictionary. The editor agreed and the RCN began working with OBND to rectify the situation.

Teresa Doherty, RCN Professional Lead for the History of Nursing, says the ODNB has strict criteria for inclusion. The dictionary is historical rather than current, so potential subjects are only considered some years after their death and they must have recorded significant achievements at a high level.

The number of nurses included in the dictionary has increased steadily. Names are put forward by the RCN’s History of Nursing Forum, along with suggestions of who might write the entry. The final decision on who is included is made by the Editor of the ONDB. Because each entry is backed by evidence and citations, it becomes a valuable tool for research. “In that respect, it provides a much better legacy than, say, a statue, which doesn’t tell the story,” Teresa says.

Although there are now more nursing entries in the ODNB, there’s more work to be done to ensure the subjects are representative of the profession in all its diversity. “There are a lot more stories to be told,” Teresa says.

If you would like to nominate a nurse for inclusion in the ODNB, email Stuart Wildman, Chair of the History of Nursing Forum:

Find out more about the History of Nursing Forum.


Words: Daniel Allen
Top image credit: Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust

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