Dora Opoku: Midwife and nurse educator who became an authority in the field of medical research ethics

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.

Helen Roberts

Dora Kwatiorkor Opoku, midwife and educator: born Accra, Ghana 14 April 1948; OBE 2004; died London 17 December 2010.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'