Dora Opoku: Midwife and nurse educator who became an authority in the field of medical research ethics
Thursday 27 January 2011
Dora Opoku was an African Queen – not by birth, but by comportment. She was an academic nurse, midwife and medical ethicist; her formidable character, combined with a boisterous laugh, commanded respect even in the most unpromising situations, including a Research Ethics committee dealing with the delicate ecology of scientists who are leaders in their fields.
Readers who do not work in health might be surprised to know that not every applicant whose work is looked at by these committees is of an unassuming disposition. So crafty were Opoku's chairing skills that even the haughtiest of colleagues was led gently towards principles they didn't know they had, and some went on to espouse these principles enthusiastically themselves. Opoku was aware of the part that laypeople, usually women, play in observing, diagnosing and caring for those with health problems. She promoted the importance of listening to patients and carers not simply because it is right, but because, if done well, it leads to better science.
When Opoku came from Ghana to train as a nurse and midwife in the 1960s, London was vetoed by her mother, who realised the temptations that might await. She was sent to train in Dundee, and retained an affection for Scotland for the rest of her life. Although one of only a handful of black people in Dundee at the time, she claimed always to have been treated with respect as the "wee African nurse" (though as she pointed out, "I never was 'wee'"). Her subsequent education included training at St Thomas's and a masters in medical ethics and law from King's College, London.
Dora Opoku was born in Accra into a large and accomplished family. Her mother Barbara was a social worker, mainly with underprivileged children and those in trouble with the law. Unusually for the time, she had trained in Europe. Dora's father Ebenezer was head nurse at the main Korle Bu Accra hospital and later Health Centre Superintendent in the Ashanti Region.
Dora's secondary education was at Ghana's posh boarding school, Wesley Girls. Without being a goody-goody – no one was less judgmental – the "Speak True" and "Right Wrongs" aspects of the school motto informed her values (the easy part) and her behaviour. She was a feminist, with political instincts on the left, but toeing any party line was foreign to her.
Her work as a midwife and a midwife-academic in the East End of London gave her opportunities to challenge injustice, in part through training students in some of the most ethnically and economically diverse areas of the UK. She could not be pigeonholed. She was on the Department of Health's consent advisory group, was active in her local Methodist church and was a trustee of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. She loved football, and was forlorn when Ghana lost to Uruguay in the World Cup quarter-finals last summer.
She ensured that colleagues who worked with her, people she met on her extensive travels, and those who cared for her in her final illness felt included and valued. She would winkle out the given name of the cleaner, driver, nurse or health care assistant and then use it, charming, teasing and encouraging them, sometimes in one of the several African languages she spoke.
After practising as a midwife and a midwife manager, Opoku became head first of midwifery, and more recently head of midwifery and child health, at City University, London. In 2004, her contribution to her profession and to medical ethics was recognised with an OBE. She was justly proud, but the irony did not escape her. The Gold Coast, (as Ghana had been until she was nine), was the first Black African country to become independent.
There are few people in academic life of whom one can say, "they never said a bitchy word about anyone." This one really didn't. While Opoku did not fail to observe abuses of power, racism or sexism, she would find a kind way to challenge – recognising that no one changes bad behaviour by throwing a brick through the window with a message saying "Stop that" tied to it.
In Ghana, funerals are an important part of life. Opoku's own Methodist funeral in East London on Christmas Eve included a Christmas carol, fitting for a midwife, and afterwards, led by her sisters and cousins, a traditional Ghanaian funeral dance. On her final visit to Ghana, she had shown me the Ga coffins crafted close to the house where she grew up, designed by carpenters to commemorate the life of the person who had died (an example is in the British Museum). As a health professional, she especially liked the packet-of-cigarettes coffin for someone who had enjoyed a smoke, but the one that might have suited Dora was a beautiful mother hen with a clutch of chicks.
Dora Kwatiorkor Opoku, midwife and educator: born Accra, Ghana 14 April 1948; OBE 2004; died London 17 December 2010.
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