Susan Ofori-Atta (1917-1985)
Born the daughter of royalty, Susan Ofori-Atta became the first woman physician in Ghana. She built the field of pediatrics in her native country before devoting herself to public health, focusing on appropriate and healthy nutrition for children.
A 1959 newspaper article reported that Susan Barbara Gyankorama Ofori-Atta had “a suitcase full of brilliant patterned native dresses, and boundless enthusiasm for the work she is doing in her young and ambitious country.” At that time, she was one of only 210 physicians in her native country – called the Gold Coast before achieving sovereignty as Ghana on March 6, 1957.
Ofori-Atta was the daughter of Nana Sir Ofori Atta I, the Okyenhene, king, or Paramount Chief of Akyem Abuakwa, one of the most influential traditional kingdoms in the Gold Coast Colony. She was one of his twenty-seven documented children – possibly one of over fifty total siblings. Her father believed in equal education of boys and girls, and as royalty, she received a strong education in Ghana.
Ofori-Atta studied midwifery locally, then traveled to Edinburgh to study further. There, she decided to go beyond midwifery and apply to the University of Edinburgh for medical school. She received her MBBS in 1947. After studying pediatrics in London, she returned to Ghana - where she found she was the first female Ghanaian physician.
She led the maternity hospital in the city of Kumasi for years, then led the Princess Marie Louise Hospital for Women in Korle Bu, where she was called “mmofra doctor” (children’s doctor). Ofori-Atta then took an administrative position as the medical officer in charge of the Nutrition Union of the Medical Research Institute in Accra. Here she worked to dispel commonly held myths about foods that shouldn’t be given to children, and to increase access to appropriate nutrition to decrease nutritional deficiencies.
She is sometimes credited with discovering and naming the nutritional deficiency of kwashiorkor, but this is unlikely. Another early woman physician, Cicely Williams (1893-1992), sent to Ghana by the British Colonial Medical Service, described the symptoms of protein malnutrition in a 1933 paper; and the term kwashiorkor was in use by 1945, before Ofori-Atta practiced in Ghana.
Ofori-Atta married a lawyer from Ghana, E.V.C. de Graft-Johnson, relatively late in life. She died in 1985.
Ferry, Georgina. Agnes Yewande Savage, Susan Ofori-Atta, and Matilda Clerk: three pioneering doctors. The Lancet. 24 November 2018.
Essay by Alison Christy, MD, PhD