“Had Sani Abacha made a law that all 30-year old Nigerians be executed by firing squad, Nigerians would have reacted in two ways: One group of Nigerians would have rushed to the courts to make age declarations and affidavits. The second batch would have rushed to the borders.”
This was Prof. Akinkugbe, a scientist of global reckoning, thrilling the audience at the memorial Prof. Oritsejolomi Thomas lecture at College of Medicine of the University of Lagos in 1998. A master of erudition, his lecture was multi-faceted, laced with Economics (he quoted John Galbraith), Politics (such as his liberal references to Abacha above), anecdotes and of course, medicine. He held his audience spell-bound. Naturally the audience was effusive with praise for him afterwards. It was at the lecture that I learnt that he had become a professor in his mid-30s.
I attended the lecture because I had seen his name in the promotional banner at the College of Medicine a few days earlier. After the lecture, I had gone to meet him. I didn’t need to introduce myself to him. Many months earlier I had visited his The Hypertension Center in Ibadan to see him. He didn’t know me then and I didn’t have an appointment either, but these didn’t matter. I did see him without any hassles.
I recall how impressed I was with the sophistication of the center, underscored by its simplicity, its tasteful finishing and academic outlook. Here was a structure that was truly reflective of its ownership.
I had just begun publishing a magazine, Hale & Hearty, at the time. Our maiden edition dealt with infertility and had an extensive interview with one of the leading authorities on the subject of female infertility at the time, Prof. Osato Giwa-Osagie. We decided that the subject of “sudden death” being very topical, as Abacha had only recently died suddenly, would headline the follow-up edition. I was in Ibadan, I told him, to find out if he would be willing to grant us an interview.
I recall that I walked with Prof. Akinkugbe from the Hypertension Center to his house, through a small opening on the low fence which separated both buildings. The surroundings were lined with trees and the lawn around the simple but classy house was undulating and well-kempt. If I had any doubt about his love for architecture before, seeing the landscaping and the quiet sophistication of his residence, erased this completely.
We agreed that I would leave a copy of the maiden edition of Hale & Hearty behind and place a call to him the next day, by which time he would have gone through his calendar, in order to fix a good time for the interview.
By the next day when I called him, his greetings were warm and friendly, something I wasn’t used to in my dealings with people in Lagos. In fact, his first question was whether I had a safe trip back from Ibadan the previous day. I was genuinely taken aback by the simplicity of this world-renowned academic. But I hadn’t seen anything yet.
A week or so later, I was back in Ibadan to interview Professor Akinkugbe. “I can see that you’ve gone to great lengths to make the publication so simple that practically anyone can understand it,” he said in praise to me. It was a treasured commendation. “I was particularly impressed with Professor Giwa-Osagie’s interview. He’s a scientist for whom I have a lot of respect,” he added.
I found out that in addition to his regular laboratory coat, he had assembled two or three other suits. He wasn’t sure which one I would prefer. He had also arranged his office and the lecture room nearby for the interview as he wasn’t sure which venue I would prefer. We settled for the lecture room, because it had a number of models of the heart and blood vessels which he could refer to dramatically, in the course of the interview (for the sake of more impactful photography).
Professor Akinkugbe spent the next two hours or more answering my questions bordering on the heart, the blood vessels, the kidneys, diet, exercise, and so on. We took quite a few photographs as well. It must have been a tiring exercise for him, but he just did not mind. You could literally touch the passion with which he discussed matters pertaining to the heart. And he did this with the tact of an experienced teacher, slowing down to ensure that the more technical areas were well-explained enough to be understood by just about anybody. What struck me was the seriousness with which he took our small magazine. Only a fortnight earlier, he had hosted a specialist conference on sudden death at the center and a battery of newsmen including NTA who showed up uninvited to cover the event, had been turned back. Transmitting valuable knowledge was what was important to him, not vulgar publicity. We bade ourselves goodbye afterwards.
It wasn’t until this memorial lecture at the University of Lagos that I would see the Professor again. As I stood with him after our initial greetings, a much younger professor from the University of Lagos came to him, an envelope in tow. It was his honorarium, the younger professor told Prof. Akinkugbe, who gently and gracefully turned it down. How could he collect an honorarium for speaking in honour of one of the greats of medicine in these parts, Prof. Thomas?
As I drove in his car on the way out of the university, Professor Akinkugbe gently asked me. “What happened?” He was referring to Hale & Hearty magazine and the interview to which he had devoted so much time. And I explained to him the difficulties we had run into. Cash was tied up in in advertisements for which payments just refused to come. Our shoe-string operation was forced to fold up, alongside the lofty and elaborate interview which never saw the light of day. You could see the look of compassion in his eyes as he nodded his head in understanding of the difficulties of entrepreneurship in our country.
Having listened to his delivery of that lecture at the Old Great Hall of the College of Medicine of the University of Lagos and his answers to my interview questions I can only hope that students who were taught by this eminent professor do realize what a great privilege they had.
As his remains are committed to mother earth, this week, I pray for the repose of the soul of this epitome of humility, decency and refinement.