Queen Elizabeth II of Britain has conferred one of the highest national honours, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Emprire, on a British-born Nigerian nurse, health expert, lecturer and medical professor, Ms. Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu.
The conferment on Dame Anionwu of Irish and Nigerian descent was in recognition of her services to the nursing profession in the United Kingdom.
Anionwu contributed to opening the first sickle cell and thalassemia counselling centre in the UK. She also helped create the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at the University of West London. She retired in 2007.
Anionwu was born Elizabeth Mary Furlong in Birmingham, United Kingdom, and is the child of then unmarried 20-year-old Irish woman, Mary Furlong.
Furlong was brilliant and excelled academically, obtaining a scholarship to Cambridge University to study classics.
Furlong was in her second year when she became pregnant by Nigerian law student Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu. Furlong decided to leave Cambridge and look for a job in order to provide for her daughter Elizabeth and herself.
Anionwu’s upbringing was heavily affected by moving between institutions and family. She spent just over two years living with her mother, a relationship that ended when her stepfather, who didn’t accept her and drank heavily, attacked her.
For much of her childhood, she was cared for by nuns, including several years in the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham.
Often being harshly punished and humiliated for wetting the bed, she remembers being made to stand with a urine-soaked sheet over her head as punishment for wetting the bed.
In a book, she recalls that later in life when working as a health visitor, “I made sure to keep up-to-date with more humane treatments for bed wetting.”
She also remembers sobbing her heart out on the bus when she had to leave the convent to go and live with her mother. Every period of relative stability in childhood ended in sudden collapse.
After an unsettled childhood and estrangement from her father, Anionwu visited Nigeria. Her trip influenced her to take on her father’s name. Anionwu has credited her father, a barrister and diplomat, as a career inspiration.
Anionwu has one daughter, Azuka Oforka, who is an actress in the BBC TV series Casualty.
Anionwu has a PhD, a DBE and FRCN (Fellow Royal College of Nursing). She began her nursing career at a very young age after being inspired by a nun who cared for her eczema.
At the age of 16, she started to work as a school nurse assistant in Wolverhampton.
Later on, she continued with her education to become a nurse, health visitor and tutor. She is ultimately thankful that her father pushed her to pursue and progress more in her career.
She also travelled to the US to study counselling for sickle cell and Thalassemia centres, as those courses were not available in the UK.
In 1979, she worked with Dr. Brozovic to create the first UK Sickle Cell and Thalassemia counselling centre in Brent.
The opening of this counselling centre pioneered the opening of over 30 centres in the UK, using the Brent location as a basis.
Anionwu is a member and patron of multiple committees: Sickle Cell Society, Nigerian Nurses Charitable Association UK, Vice President of Unite/Community Practitioners and Health Visitors Association, Editorial Advisory Board of Nursing Standard, NHS Sickle Cell & Thalassemia Screening Programme Steering Group, Honorary Advisor to the Chief Nursing Officer’s Black & Minority Ethnic Advisory Group, and Life patron of The Mary Seacole Trust.
Even though she retired in 2007, Anionwu has remained active in the nursing community and overlooks many projects.
• Culled from WOS magazine