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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

DR IRENE IGHODARO

DR IRENE IGHODARO

1916–1995

Dr Irene Elizabeth Beatrice Ighodaro (née Wellesley-Cole) was born on the 16th of May 1916 in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She came from an elite West African family. Her father was a civil engineer and superintendent of Freetown waterworks and her brother became the first Black African to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. After nursing her mother through a terminal illness, she decided to pursue a career within healthcare. Irene studied medicine at the University of Durham from 1938 to 1944 and was reportedly one of only three women in a class of sixty. 


During the war, she manned the university’s telephone exchange, became a member of the decontamination squad, and treated war casualties. Irene became the first West African-born woman doctor in Britain and decided that gynaecology would be the best route for her. Irene received her first medical case on the day of her results. She later worked as a house officer at the Royal Victoria Infirmary (1944-45) before she managed her brother’s private practice whilst he assisted the Colonial Office in West Africa (January 1945- September 1946). Irene continued to manage the practice as her brother’s assistant until he sold it in 1946. She relocated to Liverpool at the invitation of her other brother Arthur and worked at a family planning clinic without pay. Irene had founded the Society for the Cultural Advancement of Africa with her brother in Newcastle in 1943, but she also recognised the need for autonomous women’s groups. She thus helped found the West African Women’s Association in 1946, the first of its kind in Britain. In 1947, Irene married Samuel Ighodaro, a Nigerian lawyer, in Newcastle before a large audience of prominent African and European individuals. 


The couple moved to East Croydon where they lived at the International Language Club. Irene began her work at the New Sussex Hospital for Women and Children in Brighton in 1947 - she resided at the hospital but returned to East Croydon at weekends. Throughout her time in Britain, Irene played an important role in giving women a voice in the West African Students’ Union (WASU). She published pieces in Wãsù and presented a paper at the WASU Conference on West African Problems in 1942. This paper was the only one written by a woman that was published in Wãsù. In December 1949, Irene moved to Nigeria with her husband and their two sons, Tony and Wilfred. She continued her work as a pioneering social reformer and medical practitioner, and was awarded an MBE in 1958. Irene’s achievements serve as a reminder of the capability of women within the medical field, and her activism paved the way for future generations of African women doctors.


Many thanks to Irene’s children, Anthony Ighodaro and Yinka Ighodaro Omorogbe, who provided much of this information as well as previously-unseen photographs of Dr Ighodaro.


QUOTATIONS FROM HER PUBLICATIONS: 


“Ladies and gentlemen, from my talk you can see that what we want is more of everything—more foresight, more co-operation, more vision, more courage, more faith […] At the moment, many Sons of Africa are shedding their blood in this modern ideological war. Would it be too much to hope that after it their deeds of valour and sacrifice will be remembered and recorded in tangible forms like hospitals, schools and even free education?” 


“In African history, even in very ancient times, women have always enjoyed a unique and privileged position. […] In the old Africa and in societies which are almost exclusively African, the position of every woman in the home—wife, mother, grandmother, sister and daughter—was well defined. People might say their sphere was limited; that point is debatable; but the important thing is that their position and obligations were definite. This is a problem of the first magnitude because if this vague or negative idea of a woman’s position becomes a real fact it will mean the passing away of one of the finest specimens of womanhood in the world, and the death of our nation, because the family is the basic foundation of any society.” 


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