In 1850, an African missionary by the name Rev. Thomas King transferred from his station at the Abeokuta Mission in Sierra Leone, to a Yoruba Mission in his country of origin, Nigeria. With him was his son Nathaniel King, a timid two year old with little wonder and worry of the life around him and that ahead of him. The young Nathaniel certainly didn’t know it then, nor did his father, but in the next 28 years Nathaniel’s name would be recorded in books and remembered in African history as Nigeria’s first qualified medical doctor on the continent.
In one of my previous articles on the history of nursing in Kenya, I pointed out that mission stations were the root of health centres. This is also true in the West African region. By virtue of the fact that his father was an appointed catechist (1849) and later ordained deacon (1854), Nathaniel had a pious upbringing, one that similarly gave him access to opportunities unavailable to many Africans in the 19th century.
For starters, the transfer to the Yoruba Mission offered Nathaniel an opportunity to spend time in his father’s native land. But more so, Mission station life inevitably meant Nathaniel would receive a formal education, which started at Ake Elementary School. Thereafter, Nathaniel was back to the Abeokuta Mission in Sierra Leone, where he gained admission into the Church Missionary Society (CMS) institution. Concurrently, he served as a protégé of the CMS.
Now, there are other key players in Nathaniel King’s story. Besides his father, there were the missionary counterparts whose roles influenced Nathaniel’s life’s direction. The first was Rev. G. F. Buhler, who was in charge of the CMS. In Nathaniel’s time at this academy, he was instilled with the necessary values that would assure him a responsible life in his forthcoming years. Rev. Buhler was a disciplinarian, keen on ensuring his students were successful in their studies.
Then there was Dr A. A. Harrison, a CMS medical doctor stationed at the Abeokuta Mission who started a pre medical school in 1861 at the Mission Station’s Theological Institute. Up until that point, the Mission solely equipped prospective missionaries and reverends. The medical school was experimental, but designed to bring forth cohorts of medical students, specifically targeted at young boys in the Mission interested in (and with noted potential) joining the medical profession.
Rev. Buhler was the first to note Nathaniel’s cleverness and talent. The young boy’s brilliance seemed almost natural, and in due time, Dr Harrison took note as well. As Nathaniel’s time at the CMS school came to an end, he was selected to be trained by Dr Harrison; he was one of four Africans picked, and in this way he became closely affiliated with the doctor.
As a budding medical student, Nathaniel learned everything from anatomy to botany to physiology. His learning environment was also instrumental in his progress, with Dr Harrison further grooming Nathaniel by helping him understand the qualities essential for a medical career: a doctor needed to be patient, empathetic, but also prepared for unexpected medical situations.
Unfortunately, the pre-medical school was short–lived. Three of the four students admitted into the school were dismissed or sent to teach in schools in Lagos, and only Nathaniel remained. His father, Rev. King passed away in 1862, and Nathaniel was fully taken under Dr Harrison’s wing. Sadly, in 1864, Dr Harrison too passed away.
The loss of two prominent figures in his life was, if anything, was a turning point for Nathaniel. Yes, he felt the pain that comes with grief, and yet, Nathaniel knew he had to soldier on if he was to perpetuate Dr Harrison’s legacy. Luck was still shining on him, even if the moment seemed bleak.
Two years later, the CMS sent Nathaniel to Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leon, where he ventured deeper into his studies of medical practice. It was an intensive five year programme, under the firm tutelage of Dr Bradshaw. The college was linked to a colonial hospital where Nathaniel would get practical experience, and ultimately be prepared to join the Army Medical Service. This seemed to be the customary progression at the time.
However, as soon as Nathaniel completed his time at Fourah Bay, he enrolled into King’s College, London, to study medicine. This was no mean feat considering it was rare for Africans to travel overseas for further studies, and for the few who managed to beat the odds, prejudices premised on the colour of their skin sat waiting on the other end. These notwithstanding, Nathaniel kept going.
In 1875, Nathaniel passed his MRCS exams, an examination common in all UK medical colleges at the time. A streak of successes followed: he got his MB degree, then a MD degree – both from the University of Edinburgh. In 1878, Nathaniel was back to Lagos, where he was recognized as Nigeria’s first African medical doctor, earning a permanent place in Africa’s medical history.
Nathaniel returned to the CMS, where he worked as a doctor. Acknowledging his own privilege and recognising the opportunity granted to him through his three mentors – his father, Rev. Buhler and Dr Harrison, the now Dr Nathaniel King opened doors for others in medicine, environmental conservation, and even in music. By the time of his passing in 1884, at the young age of 37, Dr King’s legacy was well intact. Many looked up to him, learnt from him and were inspired by him.
Some might say his name (King) prepared him for greatness, and likely so. But it was also the values and the choices Dr King made that made him a pioneer, a man whose name would remain inscribed in Africa’s history of ground breakers for years and centuries to come.