Dame Elizabeth Anionwu

Elizabeth Anionwu is a Sickle cell specialist nurse, lecturer and health activist, born in Birmingham in 1947. She became a Dame in 2017 as a result of her services to nursing and her involvement with the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal. In her interview, she discusses her childhood and family, racism, and her activism surrounding Sickle cell and Thalassemia. Elizabeth also reflects on her travels to Nigeria and the United States in the 1970s.

Early life & Childhood

In terms of my childhood, it was actually quite unsettled. My heritage is Irish, white mother and Nigerian father; and I was born in Birmingham, England. I spent the first six months with my mother in a mother and baby home; she wasn’t married. And then I spent the next nine years in care, in children’s homes.


Why she became a nurse

I got into nursing because from as a small child in care, in the convent, I’d suffered from very bad eczema and there was a wonderful nun – I called her ‘The White Nun’ in my childish mind – in fact, all the nuns were white. She wore a white habit unlike all the other nuns who wore a classic black habit and she used to use distraction therapy, I would call it now, to not make me think, notice, the pain of when the dressing was taken off. And she would make jokes and use words like ‘bottom’, which, as a small child, I didn’t think a nun should say rude words like that. I mean, we were brought up to think that nuns were the brides of Christ in the Catholic church and so I thought she was really naughty and very funny and wonderful, and I never had any pain when she changed my dressing. And I discovered a few years later she was something called a ‘nurse’, so I decided I wanted to be like her and I stuck to that ambition and never regretted it. So that was what, you know, encouraged me to do nursing.


Healthcare Career

I’ve really had the most wonderful career in nursing because I quickly learned that– I didn’t really like hospital nursing, but I discovered, you know, I – you could work in the community and I became a health visitor which I really adored, working in – with families, and then I got involved with sickle-cell. I think – not I think, I know that what has driven me in the two areas of my career, if you like, one was sickle-cell, and the other was making sure that Mary Seacole was well-known.


Sickle Cell & Activism

Community action was absolutely vital in developing and improving services for those affected by sickle cell and thalassaemia. The reason for this was that within the National Health Service, it hadn't got on to their agenda. There were individual blood specialists and children's doctors who were absolutely active in improving the services. But there was no strategic developments within the country or within local areas for that matter. And, really, until the health authorities felt rattled by sections of the black community, sections of those families affected by the conditions, alongside interested health professionals nobody was really going to take any notice. And the NHS did get quite rattled by the upsurge in activism in sickle. It was in the Midlands it was in London, it was, it was all over the country and was full hotspots of it happening.


Visits to the United States

I discovered that the really the place to go to find out more about sickle cell anaemia was America, believe it or not, because there was just nothing in this country. And I was lucky that I had cousins on my Nigerian side, who lived in Los Angeles, went out there stayed with them, but use the opportunity to link in with the American Sickle Cell Foundation. They were fantastic. It was Afro period and my afro was way out here *gestures with hands*. When I walked into the offices of the Sickle Cell Foundation, they assumed I was American. I didn't realise this until I opened my mouth: ‘You’re from England!’, and well, all talk of sickle cell stopped. They had not met somebody like me. And they really supported me, helped me with the sickle issues, they gave me a huge amount of material to go to see, I learned a lot about the American Civil Rights Movement. My first visit to United States was in 1971, when I was just qualified as a health visitor, and I was in the Labour Party and I joined the Fabian Society. And they had a really cheap, sponsored trip to the States, linked with the Americans for democratic action, ADA, who organise the tour in New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. That was where I got my education, the most stunning experience I ever had. So for example, we were we were in New York, I was the only black person in the group. All the talks were interesting, but the talk that blew my mind was by now the late Byard Rustin. He was a Quaker, he was openly gay in the 50s and 60s and he was the most incredible administrator. He was the one that organised the March on Washington that we all know obviously in terms of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. You know, he gave he gave us a seminar, a fascinating talk about the history of civil rights.


Racism

The other aspect that I recollect about being mixed-race was that nobody knew how to comb my hair, brush my hair, grease my hair, so my hair was never coiffured properly – a brush was skimmed over it, basically. I also remember being told that I couldn’t play Humpty Dumpty in a little play because I was half-caste and even as a child, I knew it was illogical because what colour was Humpty-Dumpty, anyway? And – so those are just examples of what made me realise I was different. And, in fact, another example of me wanting to be the same was I would always cover my arms, put a cardigan on, even if it was boiling hot. Now, I was a small child, I didn’t really realise that actually, my hands are still showing, and my face is still showing but I was obviously consciously trying to hide aspects of my skin colour. So, it must have been it’d been pointed out to me in a negative way. But when I was twenty-five, I had lived in Paris for nine months – I liked French – and I became very friendly with a French-Benin midwife and she really got me into politics because she – we used to have conversations such as, “well, Elizabeth,” you know, “who’s the worst or best colonialist, the French or the British?”. And I – I had no clue what she was talking about! Then she was saying, “well, you read a lot, you’re obviously very intelligent – what writers of colour have you read?” – none! And I told her the story about washing my face ten times as a child to become white like my friends. She said, “I know the very book that you need to read” and it was Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. Now, initially, it was a bit difficult for me to get through the first few chapters, quite theoretical, but then I got the jist of it and it flowed beautifully after that. And it was like the scales came off my eyes, I felt that Frantz Fanon was talking to me and understood what I had been going through which I hadn’t understood; that here I was, brown-skinned child, adolescent, young adult, surrounded by white ethnocentric society but nobody had been guiding me or alerting – and I didn’t have role-models or anything like that, so it was an incredible book for me. I was so grateful to my friend for suggesting the title to me.