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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine