He pioneered In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), a medical miracle in collaboration with Professor Oladapo Ashiru and Dr. Abisogun, the first in Nigeria, the whole of East, West and Central Africa with pregnancies as from 1984 and a live-birth from their efforts in 1989. The professor of obstetrics and gynaecology, in medical school, enjoyed a lot of admiration and respect from his students. The internationally acclaimed fertility expert is widely published with over 86 publications in books, articles, monogrammes in local and international journals. If you’re looking for an old, life-wearied septuagenarian, don’t look in his direction. Agile, cerebral and humorous, he is determined to live life to the fullest. A prince from the famous Osagie family, the erudite scholar is passionate and proud of his heritage and holds a 300-year-old title, the Obarisiagbon of Benin Kingdom. Meet Professor Osato Ona Frank Giwa-Osagie, fondly called Osato, founder of OMNI Medical Clinic. In this interview with Omolola Itayemi, Prof. Giwa-Osagie talks about his childhood, his burst of energy and intellect, and his more than 40 years of romance with his Jamaican wife
How does it feel to clock 70?
I am clocking 70 years but I feel more like a 55-year-old, partly because I associate more with younger people. I used to tease my nephews that every pair of jeans they buy, I can buy it as well. Sometimes, some of them find it obviously difficult to associate with somebody who is much older than them, but majority don’t mind at all. They think it is great fun because they get to learn a lot of things because I have been through life for a longer time. I am definitely not one of those older people that you can put on an armchair to keep them out of the way. I’ll be bored to death if I didn’t have something that will keep me busy. I retired at 65, exactly six weeks before the government increased the retirement age for professors to 70. Many times, my wife say I am too restless because I can just be at home and at 8pm I’ll say I’m going out; that I am tired of watching television and so on. I ascribe my athletic and intellectual nature to devotion to sports and reading books as a younger person.
What sports did you do?
I played hockey quite well. I played first 11 hockeys for King’s College Lagos in the mid-60s. When I got to England, I played cricket and I have been the chairman of Hauzad foundation for cricket, to encourage cricket in Nigeria for the last 20 years. I was also quite successful in athletics. I was a triple jumper at King’s College and in Cambridge University. I also did sprint; 100 yards like they used to call it; now they say it is 100 meters. I did the relay too. I used to run a very good second leg for King’s College. I am the sort of person that can watch any sport and not get bored. I also watch the news or Animal Channel. I’m constantly fascinated by snakes and lions. But not those only, I have chickens, goats, guinea fowls, dogs and a big 84-year-old tortoise called Max.
How did you come about speaking four languages fluently?
When I was younger, my father worked for the Nigerian Prisons Service; he became the first Nigerian head of prisons service. We were constantly on the move, thanks to frequent transfers. I schooled in five states: Port Harcourt (Rivers); Abeokuta (Ogun); Kaduna (Kaduna); Warri (Delta); and then Christ the King Cathedral before going over to King’s College (Lagos) for seven years where I completed O’ levels and A’ levels, then I went to England. I think that life of travelling around gave me a very broad and tolerant attitude. So I had that kind of background and it has made me mentally active and inquisitive. I speak about four languages; Igbo, Yoruba, Itsekiri, and Bini, including French. I don’t speak Hausa because we were in Kaduna for only three months. My mother was Itsekiri and my father Bini –so, I understand Itsekiri more than I speak it.
Did you study medicine because it was the popular thing at that time?
When I was growing up, the ambition at that time was to study medicine, law or engineering. Accountancy was new; we didn’t understand what it meant. I got into medicine because my father had some friends who were doctors, who used to visit us. The likes of Dr. B. J. Ikpeme of Calabar and Dr. G. O. Garrick of Benin; my father’s friends and classmates from King’s College, Dr. Ofili, who was in Benin and Asaba, my father’s first cousin, Professor T. Bello-Osagie. These are the doctors that I grew up knowing as a child. I used to admire them when they came, flinging their stethoscopes; their cars always smelled of medicine. I was always saying I wanted to be a doctor; I just followed it up from there. I excelled in science and French, so it was easy for me to go towards medicine. I passed the entrance examination into Cambridge University to study medicine. It was my first time in England in 1966. I studied medicine at Claire College, Cambridge University, and from there went to King’s College Hospital in London to do the clinical and to specialise. I was in England for 12 years, doing medicine and specialising before I came back to Nigeria.
You returned to Nigeria to pick up a job with LUTH. Why?
In our time, you were deemed to be a failure if you went to England and didn’t come back. No Nigerian parent prayed for their child to stay back in England or America, unlike now. It was a big disaster for a family if a child got qualified and decided to stay back. That is why many of us – my age – do not have British citizenship. We were offered but we said we didn’t want. When I came back, I was a lecturer at King’s College Hospital. It was true that the facilities at that time were better but we were still close to facilities in Britain. When I came to LUTH, it was functioning and my salary, when converted, it wasn’t much lower than my salary in England because it was N1.2k to a pound sterling. I was coming home where there was a lot of work to do. LUTH interviewed me in London. I got the appointment and they gave me a Nigerian Airways ticket for my entire family to come back. Within three months of returning I was given a three-bedroomed flat in LUTH.
That is how efficient Nigeria was even as recently as 1978. That was the atmosphere I grew up in. Of course, now you can choose whether or not to come back. Before I came back, I already had a master’s degree in endocrinology and was already working at the WHO research centre at King’s College Hospital, where we were doing trials on contraceptives and infertility. So, I was already in the infertility field. I came back to Nigeria, as a gynaecologist who already had a bias for fertility matters, family planning and the likes. I was lucky.
When did the first IVF pregnancy occurred in Nigeria?
When I came back in 1978, I was lucky that the head of department of Gynaecology at LUTH was a man called, Professor Akinla, who is still alive at 94 years old. He was an examiner when I did my specialist final in England and he was very impressed by my performance and said to himself I must get this doctor to come and work with me at LUTH. I got the job and I came back, he put me in his department. But he was already working on fertility matters; he was working with population council on contraception rings and so on. I basically walked into what I was doing in London. I had that advantage over other people who had to start afresh. I just kept working and publishing papers, being invited to give lectures and I quickly became a full professor by the age of 40 which is very unusual in obstetrics and gynaecology in Nigeria. Most people become professors between 48 and 50 years. I moved from lecturer 1 to full professor in seven years which is record-breaking. It was all due to the publications I was doing in the field of contraception and infertility.
At that same time, Prof Oladapo Ashiru was rising meteorically in anatomy department; he was also interested in fertility. He became a professor at the age of 33 or 34. We had similar interests. He was working on animals and I on humans. We came together and that’s how our IVF team was formed. I went off to Australia to learn about human IVF in Melbourne, he to Nebraska, USA. We came back and continued to work and by 1984 we had our first pregnancy from IVF and that was it. By the time we had the first time delivery from IVF, it was clear to us that unless the government put in place a scheme for making sure that the money came in for buying reagents and other things, we could not continue because we could not be using our personal money for funding treatment in a personal hospital. So they said, IVF was not priority, diarrhoea and vomiting was more important. Fair enough, that time Prof Ransome-Kuti was the minister of health and primary care was his area.
They did not put fertility treatment among the things the World Bank should fund, rather than go to Saudi Arabia as most doctors were doing I decided to start an IVF practice. I was able to do this with funding from friends and assistance from members of my family including my cousin, Hakeem Bello-Osagie and Ebitimi Banigo, the banker who is now a king in Bayelsa State. They don’t have fertility problems but they saw my interest and the funding to Melbourne to attend an IVF workshop was by Kings College Old boys association. The late Gbenga Oshifekun, an accountant, gave me a business class ticket to Australia. Dapo Ashiru went to America for about 10 years but I was here. I had made up my mind I wasn’t going to live in a foreign land again after spending more than 12 years in England. That’s how Ashiru and I got together.
You named your clinic OMNI. What does it mean and how long has it been in existence?
OMNI stands for the power of God; omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. It has been in existence since December 1999 and officially opened by Chief Mrs. Oluremi Tinubu. I had previously had a medical practice at Osagie Medical Centre (OMC) at Surulere, Lagos, from 1987 to 1999. Then I moved here and adopted the name. OMC belongs to Professor T. Bello Osagie who was my father’s first cousin.
How do you relax?
After work, I’ll go home, eat and maybe go to the club or go visit some friends in Ikoyi and Victoria Island. I like to travel. I got into that habit because I was secretary general of the West African College of Surgeons which consists of 18 countries. I used to go along to visit them while we train surgeons. I have also been quite busy academically, writing papers which I present all over the place: Japan, Thailand, Australia, India, America, Britain, France, and South Africa.
Let’s talk about your heritage and your traditional title.
I am very proud to be a Bini man. I am proud without demeaning other cultures. I am proud of my culture because my culture is hundreds of years old. The Oba of Benin sent his eldest son to Portugal by boat, some 500 years ago. The crown prince lived in Portugal for about four years, now that takes some doing. I am the Obarisiagbon of Benin Kingdom; my title is about 300 years old. With a title that old and obaship that is even longer than that you still find that the system is bearing its substance – you have to be proud of it. The Obas during their tenures, tried to modify things without destroying them. The last Oba modernised a lot of shrines and appointed people to look after them. The present Oba has said that he is going to review the administration to make sure things are done properly; to cut off too much wayo in settling cases in the palace. People are always quarrelling over titles, inheritance, land, and so on. It is an opportunity for those who are bent on exploiting the situation to make money for themselves. He said he is going to try and correct that. When you have a kingdom that has straight rules before the British came in, they had street lights and straight roads; all of these are documented, you have to respect the system. But you have people who threatened that structure. In Benin culture, the eldest son is the head of the family. It doesn’t matter if he is 15 years old and the sister is 60 years old. This is the very anti-thesis of the Yoruba land and the Kalabari custom, where the first child is first; it doesn’t matter whether it is male or female.
Was meeting your wife love at first sight?
My wife is not Nigerian. My wife is from Jamaica. We met in England where we were both students. I was studying medicine while she was studying dentistry. She moved into my hostel in 1970. I had moved in a year earlier, and I met her there. So, I have known her for over 40 years. We did our 40th wedding anniversary last year September. This is our 41st year in marriage.