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The doctor who wants to prevent rather than cure

BY: Elizabeth Ohene
Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah
Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah

There was a beautiful ceremony at the auditorium of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Accra last week when the Public Health Department of the College of Physicians and Surgeons paid homage and bestowed a well-deserved public honour on Professor Emeritus Samuel Ofosu-Amaah.

As I sat through the ceremony, I wondered why I hadn’t written about this man who had made such a great impact on public health not just in Ghana, but indeed, across the whole wide world.

Now at 91, he is unwell and wasn’t at the ceremony himself. The honours were received on his behalf by his wife, Mrs Virginia Akwele Ofosu-Amaah, a woman whose own story deserves to be told one of these days.

Festschrift

I had the perfect opportunity to write about Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah back in January 2011 when the good professor turned 80 and some of his students organised a festschrift in his honour to celebrate his birthday.

Maybe a bit of a showoff here throwing in a fancy word like festschrift, but then why ever not? It was my first experience of festschrift and I was totally enthralled by it.

So, to those, like me, who don’t know about festschrift, here goes. On January 13, 2011, the day Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah turned 80, some of his students, many of whom are now professors themselves, organised a colloquium where various academic papers on different aspects of Medicine were presented.

That is a roundabout way of explaining what a festschrift is, a volume of writings by different authors presented as a tribute to a respected person, especially an academic.

This time, the writings were live presentations, not a volume and as it turned out, I understand the papers delivered at the event have not been published yet.

But it was certainly fascinating to listen to all those papers and through them, hear the story of Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah as a medical doctor and his adventures in the public health sector unfold from the perspective of 10 former students.

A confession, I have personal knowledge of much of the professor’s story, as I had made an entry into and became part of his family almost 50 years ago. That is another story.

At the moment, we are at the festschrift and that was 11 years ago.

Story

Prof. Ofosu-Amaah’s story certainly deserves to be told, as do the stories of all those early Ghanaian doctors.

As I hesitate about telling the stories, I get into the danger of having to write obituaries instead of telling the stories of these trailblazers whilst they are still alive.

Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah’s story started some 91 years ago at Jamestown, Accra on January 13, 1931 as the first-born child of Lawrence and Bernice Ofosu-Amaah.

He went to Achimota School, the University College of the Gold Coast, Legon and then to Glasgow University Medical School in Scotland and came back to Ghana after having specialised as a paediatrician and first made his mark in the health service at the Children’s Block of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital.

He did not last very long as a paediatrician before he moved to public health. He tells the story of his move to public health as a result of his experiences as a children’s doctor.

After dealing with a succession of mothers coming to the children’s block with severely malnourished children, with malarial children, with diarrhoea-ravaged children, slowly getting them back into good health, discharging them and they coming back six months later with the same conditions and having to go through the same process again of getting them back to health, he decided he would rather go to the root of the problem and find out the cause rather than finding cures over and over again.

Prof. Samuel Ofosu-Amaah was never cut out to be a medical doctor that concentrated on a particular specialised field.

He is not that kind of man. His interests are wide and diverse and he is generous with sharing knowledge.

Long before computers became the everyday instruments that we all use to various degrees of importance in our lives, he was very much into computers and gadgetry of all kinds. He is very much the gadgets man.

He undertook a project to draw up his family tree and became the repository of all the information about his paternal lineage, the Ofosu-Amaahs from Akyem Swedru, Aburi, Ahwerease; his maternal lineage, the Moulds from Jamestown, Winneba, the Vanderpujes and allied families.

The first subject he taught at the Ghana Medical School was the History of Medicine, not exactly a required examination subject, but certainly useful if you were hoping to become an educated doctor that could engage in a conversation outside the symptoms of measles.

Danfa Health Project

But public health was his main preoccupation. That is how he came to be part, with the late Prof. Fred Sai, of the Danfa Health Project, the famous rural health project that sought to find the state of food and nutrition, housing, hygiene and life in general of the rural child. This is the doctor who wants to prevent rather than cure.

It was his work on lameness that uncovered the many hidden cases of polio around the country and led to the major decision on Ghana undertaking the full-scale vaccination of children.

He went to the Harvard University School of Public Health and came back to start the Department of Community Health where he became professor and head of department.

When he took up an appointment with UNICEF in 1984 and left Ghana, that move simply broadened his interest in public health.

He was involved in the Bamako Initiative, the policy statement adopted by African health ministers aimed at strengthening the management and financing of health services on the continent.

During the 10 years that he lived in the United States working for UNICEF, he made regular trips to Mali and would always route a stop in Accra on his way back.

So regular were these stops that some people at Ridge Church, where he worships, never realised he was not living in Ghana, as he always made it to church during his weekend stops.

He came back home in 1994 and became the professor and founding director of the School of Public Health, University of Ghana.

Interest

Prof. Ofosu-Amaah’s interest in public health and determination to deal with the source of diseases rather than the cure, took him into many aspects of public life that you wouldn’t find many medical doctors in.

He was an assemblyman at the Accra Metropolitan Assembly and served as chairman of the health committee.

He was chairman of the Board of Management of the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital and was the inaugural president of the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons.

I am veering into what I didn’t want to do, which was to get into his intimidating CV. I have omitted to point that he and his wife Virginia Akwele, nee Engmann, have three children, all now top-notch professionals in their various fields of endeavour; there is one medical doctor among them.

I dare not tell this story without a mention of his very fancy telescope. Yes, he is an astrologer and shares his enthusiasm for the fascinating world of the stars and skies above us.