He was 94 in 2017 when I had my first conversation with him. I had asked him if he had one wish, he would want God to grant him before his exit. He answered without hesitation that God should allow him to reach the age of 100 before calling him home. Early last year, when I had a telephone conversation with him, he was still confident God would answer his prayer.
Professor Theophilus Ogunlesi, the first Nigerian professor of Medicine at the University of Ibadan and father of the US-based billionaire businessman, Bayo OGUNLESI. He died 11 days ago, one year shy of his target exit date.
In this piece, which serves as a tribute, I highlight his responses to the questions I asked him on seven key areas during my first conversation with him.
ON MAKING THE BEST OF ONE’S CAREER
No one is completely in control of his life’s journey.
Upon reflection on my life’s journey, especially how I came to choose medicine as a career, the only conclusion I could come up with is that no person is in complete control of his life’s journey. A good part of one’s attainment during the journey had already been determined before birth, anyway through the inherited GENE.
Did I choose medicine as a career? My answer would be that perhaps if I had been born and raised under different circumstances, I would not be what I am today. What I know is that I began to have a say in my own life, after I left home for Lagos at 13. So, up until that time, I cannot recall doing anything apart from what my parents or teachers wanted me to do.
I started school in 1930. My late father enrolled all his children in school because he was convinced about what the missionaries were saying about the value of education. The majority of the people were farmers in those days, and the choice was you either send your child to school or put the child on the farm. My father was both a blacksmith and a farmer.
Maybe I would have ended up as a blacksmith or a farmer if he had followed the popular trend in those days that a child should follow in the footsteps of his parents. Where a child starts will be determined by the circumstances of the time and also by the parents. When you are born to poor parents, the struggle is going to be very hard to get to the top.
But what we don’t know is the extent to which predestination will prevail in our lives. A child may be born to poor parents and end up becoming the president of his or her country.
When I look back, I think I must have done very well in primary school because I spent six years instead of the usual eight years at that time. When I got to secondary school in Lagos where I should have spent six years, I spent only five, because I started from class two instead of class one. Even at that, I led the class all the years up to 1940.
I passed Junior Cambridge Examinations in Form IV in 1938, and Senior Cambridge in Form VI in 1940, with five distinctions out of eight subjects, and I also won most of the school’s prizes. The school was CMS Grammar School, Lagos, the oldest and still the best secondary school in Nigeria today as far as I am concerned.
Our principal then, Mr L. J. Lewis, a white man, wanted me to be a teacher. So, in 1941, he got me admitted into Yaba Higher College, the first post-secondary educational institution in Nigeria, without exams. I spent a week in the Arts class which I did not like. I came back to tell my principal that I preferred Science subjects and that I would like to be a doctor.
That choice was not unconnected with an earlier experience in Sagamu where I grew up. A doctor used to visit the town once a week from Ijebu-Ode at that time, and his arrival was usually announced by the ringing of the church bells. He came to give injections, usually to people he did not have time to examine. So, when I told my principal that I wanted to study Medicine, he said “okay, if that is what you want.”
I was moved from the Arts class to the Science class. To me, it was just fun that I could do science subjects because I preferred Physics, Chemistry and Biology to Latin and Greek. That was the beginning of the seven-year journey that led me from the Higher College to Yaba Medical School, and from there to the Lagos General Hospital where we did our clinical training in 1947.
I became a doctor after obtaining my first Diploma in Medicine, L.S.M. (Licentiate of the School of Medicine of Nigeria). The point I am making is that I could not say that I consciously chose to study Medicine. I firmly believe that it was a divine arrangement. Once I realised that, I decided I was going to give that career my very best, and that was what I did.
I believe that this applies to every career in life.
ON PARENTING AND GOOD FAMILY LIFE
A good upbringing gives a child an initial advantage.
I picked up many vital lessons from the way my father raised me by inculcating in me basic Christian values. My wife and I followed in his footsteps while we were raising our children. We did as much as we possibly could to make our children true Christians. Our children were brought up never to tell lies; we tried to instil in them true Christian values.
We knew the friends they kept. Therefore, we were not surprised that they turned out the way we expected them to. Thank God! Sometimes, children are affected positively or negatively by the way the parents themselves live. There must be an agreement between the father and mother. A home where the father and mother speak with one voice makes it easier for the child to develop his or her talents. I know that no home is perfect, but our children did not face any serious problems growing up.
ON MAINTAINING GOOD HEALTH
There is a need for regular checkups.
Because I studied Medicine, I am in a position to appreciate and tell others what it takes to be healthy. I did not control the food I ate as a child, but since I became a doctor in 1947, I have looked after my health. The average Nigerian should have a health card on which his or her medical records are kept. He/she should have a doctor who does his/her annual checkup.
You need to know that you have normal blood pressure; that your vision is okay; that you are not overweight; and you need to have a good diet and regular exercise. Exercise is important if you want to be healthy. At my age, I still exercise. How did I survive till 94? The grace of God….”
ON WISDOM FOR MONEY MATTERS
Having cash is not the same as being wealthy.
A lot of people have a wrong interpretation of what wealth means. So, they believe that being wealthy means having a lot of money in one’s bank account. That could be an aspect of wealth. But to me, real wealth means being fulfilled in the assignment God has committed into your hands, and being able to put smiles on the faces of other people who are in need. I am not a businessman in the Nigerian sense of the word, but my lifelong business has been, and still is, to take care of the sick, promote health and prevent sickness, through health education, and help the poor and the needy as best as I can.
ON SPIRITUAL MATTERS
The joy of the Lord is my strength.
I was born to Christian parents. I have had a Christian upbringing, and so my spiritual life is guided by the Bible. My God has been very loving, very kind, and very forgiving. And I give Him all the glory for everything he has done to me and through me. If I may quote a favourite hymn I love very well: “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord uncounted blessings give my spirit voice tender to Him, the promise of His word in God my Saviour shall my heart rejoice”.
Have fun by doing what is purposeful.
If fun time is what amounts to a lack of purpose or seriousness in what one does, then I have no time for such things. However, I certainly enjoy relaxing by playing a few games, listening to the radio and watching television.
ON PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT
Reading develops the mind.
I do a lot of reading and writing now. Even though I’m retired, I’m not tired. Reading develops the mind because you are sharing the thoughts of people who are knowledgeable in a particular subject or field. A sensible individual will continue to learn until he or she dies. Reading should be part of the life of every person who can read. The five senses should be used maximally. I have eight manuscripts which I have not fully developed. I keep working on them, hoping that I can still get at least some of them published before my time is up.
BEST ADVICE RECEIVED
God Almighty has been my best adviser. He is my master, best adviser and best friend.
The Bible says – “A good name is better than riches.” (Proverbs 22:1)