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Remembering Ajose, first OAU VC



Part of the National Anthem encourages every Nigerian to “serve with love and strength and faith, so that the labour of our heroes past will not be in vain”.

To me, if the labour of our past heroes will not be eroded, and eventually rendered pointless and purposeless, we must constantly remember the efforts of our past legends, who altruistically sacrificed their yesterday for our better today.
Perhaps, it is not out of place to begin this discourse by first interrogating the concept of heroism.


In other words, who is a hero? American actress, Debi Mazar says “a hero is somebody who is selfless, who is generous in spirit, who just tries to give back as much as possible and help people.

A hero is someone who saves people and who really deeply cares”. In his own opinion, American educator and founder of Ethical Movement, Felix Adler describes a hero as the one “who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see”
Taking the two definitions together, and examining the life and efforts of the late Prince and Prof. Oladele Adebayo Ajose, the first black and Nigerian Professor as well as the first Vice Chancellor of the then University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) who passed on 40years ago, one will easily know the true demonstration of heroism.

Born on the 21 September 1907 to a royal family of the Ologunkutere Ruling House of Lagos, Prince Ajose made his way in 1927 to the University of Glasgow, one of the ancient universities of Scotland, where he obtained the Doctorate of Medicine (MD) in 1939.
He was one of the first Nigerians to obtain the Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery and Diploma in Public Health.

Prof Ajose had the distinction of being the first African Professor appointed by the Nigeria’s premier University, University College, Ibadan (now University of Ibadan) in 1948.


He therefore became one of the earliest Africans to hold a professorial chair anywhere in the modern world. He was a distinguished scientist, an eminent university administrator and a pioneer in the  field of university education in Nigeria.
I was in my office when a short message was delivered on my phone. The terse message read, “where are you? Join me at the International Conference Centre”. The sender: Health Minister, Prof. Isaac Folorunso Adewole.

Like  a military General’s call to his soldier, I suspended my engagement and rushed down to the venue. Upon sighting me, the Minister beckoned to me to come nearer and whispered “sorry for the short notice, I want you to be part of this book  launch and write about it later”.
The 377-page book entitled “Prince, Professor, Patriot Oladele Adebayo Ajose” written by the Head of Department of History, University of Ibadan, Prof. Olutayo Charles Adesina was packaged to commemorate the pioneering efforts of the subject who blazed the trail in health and education.

Prof. Adewole who was the chairman of the occasion in his characteristic candour commanded the organizers to give me a copy of the book free of charge and directed me to read through for more knowledge about the man who indeed worked tirelessly for the betterment of his society.
Reading through the book, however, one was shocked encountering a pioneer who had to tread a path into the unknown without the benefit of guideline derived from precedents.

Even though Prof. Ajose was regarded as a man of great drive, discipline and good judgment, went through a lot of tribulations in a society he laboured so patriotically to deliver from diseases and ignorance. He was an icon who typified the values, spirit and aspirations of his age.
On his arrival in Nigeria after his successful studies in Scotland, Prince Ajose took up appointment with Lagos Town Council (now Lagos Island Local government) first as an Assistant  Medical Officer of Health and later, as the Medical Officer of Health.


As a conscientious Health Officer and patriot, Dr. Ajose in 1931,  began to promote the establishment of what later became the Nigerian Central Council Branch of the British Red Cross.

Realizing the importance of clean environment to the prevention of diseases. Dr. Ajose established Sanitary Inspection Scheme whose officers were known as “Wo’le Wo’le in local parlance.
In September 1948, Ajose moved over to the University College, Ibadan as he accepted Mellanby’s overtures to join the academic staff of the then College.

He left his civil service job for his new position as the first black African Professor to be appointed to a full chair in Preventive and Social Medicine. By 1953, when UI was still largely staffed by expatriates, Prof. Ajose was the only Nigerian member of the University Academic Board.
He established Ilora Health Centre as part of the doctrine of not teaching community medicine to the students in the lecture theatres only but also in the field where practical experience can be acquired.

The Ilora experience became one of the greatest opportunities to demonstrate the interface between thinking and practice.

In truth, one of the major achievements of Prof. Ajose’s sojourn at the University College Ibadan Medical School was the Ilora initiative- a significant development in rural preventive and social health care.
Prof. Ajose had discovered overtime that community participation was a sine qua non to the success of preventive health services and practices.

His experience in Lagos gave him the satisfaction of knowing that the application of the principles of hygiene to a particular area was an effective way of preventing the incubation and spread of dreadful, life threatening diseases.

Ilora, a predominantly rural community in southwestern Nigeria therefore was the site of a  major Primary Health Care revolution in sub-Saharan Africa.
Impressed by his rising profile, the then western regional government headed by Chief Obafemi Awolowo, recognizing the invaluable services of Prof. Ajose could render to his government and people, appointed him into the membership of the Western Region Civil Service Commission. He was made the Chairman, Western Region Scholarship Board.


In 1960, he was chosen as one of the wise men and women brought together to recommend the best type of university for the western region of Nigeria.

In this committee, Prof. Ajose helped to lay the solid foundations for academic work and the physical growth of the future University of Ife.
He was a man imbued with a profound sense of duty and an avowed sense of responsibility. He remained an enduring demonstration of sacrifice and service.

His unsparing industriousness, his meticulous thoroughness, his mastery of the role of public health to the community and his lucidity of exposition made him indispensable to his profession.

He contributed to the development of his society far and above the official line of duty.
However, the new University College , Ibadan had its teething troubles some of which affected Prof. Ajose adversely, being the only Nigerian among expatriate staff.
The most vexed issue, according to one-time Registrar, Prof. Saburi Biobaku was that of maintaining a differential in the emoluments and conditions of services of expatriate members of staff vis-a-vis  their African and Nigerian counterparts.

There were protests and persistent agitation for the abolition of the differential, fueled by an increasing vocal press.

The foremost Nigerian on the  academic staff, it would appear, became linked with the agitation in the minds of the expatriates.

It was easy to suppose that Prof. Ajose was leading the fight from within and feeding the press with information.
Saanu wrote from University of Ibadan   


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