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Kelsey Harrison, Africa’s academic giant at 90

By Friday Okonofua, Tubonye Harry and Nimi Briggs
04 January 2023   |   4:01 am
It is not too often that men and women who have done well in building a sector of a country are saluted and appreciated in their lifetime. It usually takes a long time, and even generations for the work of great men and women to manifest and for the populations they served to understand the significance of the contributions they have made.

Kelsey Harrison

It is not too often that men and women who have done well in building a sector of a country are saluted and appreciated in their lifetime. It usually takes a long time, and even generations for the work of great men and women to manifest and for the populations they served to understand the significance of the contributions they have made.

However, when such a person reaches the nonagenarian age of 90 years, it is a milestone too phenomenal to be ignored. It is within this context that we celebrate today the life and times of Distinguished Emeritus Professor Kelsey Atanganmuerimo Harrison who attains the age of 90 years on January 9, 2023.

Kelsey Harrison is a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology who worked for several years at the University of Ibadan (1960-1972), the Ahmadu Bello University (1972-1981), and later at the University of Port Harcourt (1981-1998) where he rose to the position of Vice-Chancellor. During these periods he trained several generations of medical doctors and obstetricians and gynaecologists, many of whom occupy high positions of health governance today both within and outside the country.

What throws Professor Harrison above all others is the fact that he did not only teach medicine with focus on obstetrics and gynaecology, he used data generated from his extensive research to teach the principles of social connectedness to his colleagues and students and galvanized the world to appreciate the adverse consequences that poverty and low level education can manifest for the health of communities, women, and girls. He was the first among his peers anywhere in the world to demonstrate this relationship, which has now resulted in more dispassionate and equitable consideration for the health and social wellbeing of women and children, especially in developing countries.

His doctrines in health care provision especially in obstetrics and gynaecology currently feature as the driving and motivational force that galvanizes the uptake and practice of the specialty by junior colleagues and students throughout many sub-Saharan African countries. It is for this reason that Professor Harrison is fondly referred to with several accolades: great grandfather of obstetrics and gynecology in Africa; the mastermind of social obstetrics; and the grandmaster of reproductive health in Africa.

For his contributions to a better understanding of the determinants of health outcomes, Professor Harrison has received numerous awards some of which include the following: the George Macdonald Medal jointly awarded by the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for his pioneering research in social obstetrics (1987); Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Science (1988); The Nigerian National Order of Merit (1989); Founding Member, International Advisory Board of The Lancet, one of the oldest and most prestigious medical journals in the world (1991-2001); Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology University of Port Harcourt (1998); Distinguished Professor of Medicine by the National Universities Commission (NUC) in 2011; the naming of the Kelsey Harrison Hospital in Port Harcourt after him (2013); Nigerian Centenary Medal (2014); The Distinguished Service Star of Rivers State of Nigeria (2017); and the Distinguished Service Medal in 2022 by the RCOG for his services to humanity in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology and women’s health.

His university degrees are of interest too. The first was the Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MB, BS) with Honours and a Distinction in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (1958); MD (Doctor of Medicine), London by thesis titled “Blood volume in severe anaemia of pregnancy (1969); Doctor of Science (Medicine) London (1988). The later was acquired by examination not honorary “for his distinguished work over many years in the field of childbearing under adverse socioeconomic conditions with special reference to sub-Saharan Africa.”

Professor Kelsey Harrison was born on January 9, 1933 at Abonnema, Akuku-Toru Local Government Area in Rivers State of Nigeria, along the coastline of the River Sombreiro, close to the Atlantic Ocean in the Niger Delta. He lost his father at the age of six, and was brought up by his great aunt, Mrs. Fanny Letitia Karibi Bob Manuel and her husband, Chief Anthony Karibi Bob Manuel. His mother Ethel Taylor became one of his father’s four widows. Among them only his mother could read and write having had primary school education locally. After she widowed, she gained employment at Unilever in Apapa Lagos, and on retirement left Lagos for Abonnema where she took care of her aged mother. All along, she was fiercely determined to ensure that all three of her children received the best education available and affordable, and they did. Interestingly, she never remarried and continued to use her maiden name all her life. Unlike Kelsey Harrison’s mother, his father, Owangaye Obu Harrison Boyle, never went to school, so he was illiterate yet a prosperous palm oil and kernel businessman.

Kelsey Harrison received his primary school education at a local school, Bishop Crowther Memorial School (1938-1945), and his secondary education at the Government College Umuahia (1946-1951). Good at his school work, he also excelled at drama, music, and games, and became the head boy (senior prefect) of the school in his final year in the 1950-51 session. His undergraduate medical education began at the University College in Ibadan, Nigeria, in October 1951, and thereafter he moved to the University College Hospital Medical School in London where he received his undergraduate clinical training and graduated as a medical doctor in November 1958. He was a college scholar at the University of Ibadan.

Following his graduation, he interned first at the UCH in London and later at the Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital at Ipswich. He returned home to Nigeria in 1960 to begin what has turned out to be a flourishing career in obstetrics and gynaecology. The junior residency programme covered 4 years, the first 3 years of which were in Ibadan under the tutelage of Professor John Lawson, while the 4th year was under Professor WCW Nixon at the UCH London.

He sat and passed the MRCOG (Membership of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, UK) examination in 1964. He moved to St. Mary’s Hospital London for six months to acquire the essential methods of research in this field. He returned to Ibadan in June 1964 to a combined post of clinical senior registrar and research fellow. In 1967, he was promoted to the post of consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at the UCH in Ibadan, with a combined lectureship in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Ibadan.

At the UCH Ibadan, he continued his research and service delivery slants with great enthusiasm and high level fidelity and received additional degrees and honours within a short period of time. These included the Fellowship of the Nigerian Postgraduate Medical College in Obstetrics and Gynaecology (FMCOG) in 1971; the Fellowship of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FRCOG) in 1973); and the Fellowship of the West African College of Surgeons (FWACS) in 1973. He was promoted to the post of Professor in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Ibadan in 1972. He thereafter transferred his services to the Ahmadu Bello University in 1972 as Professor and Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, and later as the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine (1976-1978). He moved his services to the University of Port 1981, where he rose to the position of Vice-Chancellor (1989-1992).

Professor Harrison conducted ground-breaking research in several domains of obstetrics and gynaecology in all the institutions where he worked – severe anaemia in pregnancy, abnormal haemoglobins especially sickle cell disease in pregnancy, and blood transfusion in severe anaemia in pregnancy. He invented the technique of combining direct blood transfusion with rapidly acting diuretic – ethacrynic acid – in place of emergency exchange blood transfusion in the management of life-threatening anaemia in pregnancy and then took active part in the development of community obstetrics, all in Ibadan. The details are in his autobiography titled An Arduous Climb from the Creeks of Niger Delta to a Leading Obstetrician and University Vice Chancellor published in 2006, and now badly needs updating.

Above all, it was his research at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria that was most transformational in providing results that have changed the face of the specialty and the universal approach to women’s health to this day. Over a period of 10 years, he painstakingly collected information from women who delivered in the obstetrics unit of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology of the Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital and analysed the data to determine the circumstances under which women died in the hospital, and why some died and others survived. He wrote and published a monograph titled: “Child-bearing, health and social priorities: A survey of 22,774 consecutive hospital births in Zaria, Northern Nigeria” which was published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in 1985. Before then, little was known of the circumstances under which women gave birth in many parts of the developing world. At the time, family planning and fertility control were the buzz words, under the belief that a reduction in levels of fertility was needed to control population growth and promote development in developing countries.

Professor Harrison’s publications showed for the first time how young women died needlessly from preventable pregnancy complications such as eclampsia and vesico-vaginal fistulae. He demonstrated through robust data analysis how severe social exclusion, poverty, deprivations and harmful traditional practices predisposed women to deaths and disabilities, and how these could have been prevented if more emphasis was placed on women’s education and social development. This was the first time these inequities were described as associated with high rates of maternal deaths in the developing world, which today marks the mantra of social obstetrics and women’s health internationally.

Following Harrison’s publication in 1985, subsequent events led to the convening of the Safe Motherhood Conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 by the World Health Organization; the United Nation’s International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt in 1994; the Fourth Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995; the Millennium Development Goals in 2000; and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. All of these conferences epitomized and emphasized the adoption of a paradigm shift leading from a previously narrow focus on family planning to a broadened agenda that emphasized the empowerment of women through better education, social equality with men, and substantive representation as central to the survival of women throughout the lifecycle. Clearly, Kelsey Harrison’s research and publications transformed the field of maternal health putting more emphasis and focus on equity, equality, social justice, and the education and upliftment of women.

We conclude this essay by stressing the critical role that Professor Kelsey Harrison has played in transforming the field of obstetrics and gynaecology from one focused on the mere delivery of a pregnant woman and treatment of complications to a broader and holistic discipline that encompasses the development of women right from infancy through adolescence, reproductive life, and menopause. This equitable development of women includes proper education, better nutrition, appropriate acculturation of social values, and the prevention of harmful traditional practices are the domains that Professor Harrison has led over the years and which today remain the mainstay of obstetrics practice throughout the world.

On this 90th anniversary of his birth, we acknowledge Professor Kelsey Harrison as the leading icon and beacon of hope for women especially in resource-poor countries, a role model who has built and continues to build several disciples in the field of obstetrics and gynaecology, an extraordinary thinker ahead of his time, a Nigerian patriot extra-ordinary, an idealist with phenomenal high level integrity, and an optimist who believes that Nigeria, and indeed all of Africa will get it right someday. We wish him more happy returns of the day, and continued energy and resourcefulness to enable him to continue to contribute to the improvement of health and its socio-economic imperatives, not only in Nigeria, but throughout the African region.

He married a Finnish retired chief public health matron, Irma Kyllikki Seppänen in 1997 (his second marriage and her first); they live in the beautiful rural commune of Tuusula Finland; and they have no children as they were married in their mid-sixties. His first marriage to Joyce Harrison ( a Briton) ended in divorce: They have a daughter, Loliya Kathryn, and a son William Soberenimibo Ofori. There are two granddaughters , Amy Tariba and Molly Belema, all of whom live in the United Kingdom. Kelsey Harrison loves music, gardening, and the game of cricket. He played cricket for Nigeria in the 1950s and 1960s.

• Okonofua, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Reproductive Health, University of Benin,
• Harry, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Niger Delta University, Ammassoma, Bayelsa State,
• Briggs, Emeritus Professor Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Port Harcourt.

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