Prof David Okpako (1936-2020): Life of an Icon

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It is with profound regret that we announce the passing, on September 7, 2020, of Prof David Tinakpoevwan Okpako, who was a Distinguished Fellow of our Institute.

Prof Okpako’s contributions to the establishment of the discipline of Pharmacy in Nigerian academia make for a lofty story of inspiration and doggedness. Over the span of his career and life, he did prove himself to be a man of many parts, rounding off as a veritable elder statesman in the Nigerian intellectual community.

Born November 22, 1936, in Owahwa, now in Delta State, Nigeria, David Okpako attended Urhobo College, Effurun, and earned a Federal Government scholarship to take his A Level (GCE) subjects and a diploma course in Pharmacy at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science and Technology, Ibadan (1956-1960). He became a registered pharmacist in Nigeria in 1960, starting his professional career as Junior Pharmacist at the University College Hospital, Ibadan (1960-1961).

He gained further scholarship from the Federal Government to study Pharmacy at the University of Bradford, UK, where he bagged a Bachelor of Pharmacy in 1964, winning the Pharmacology prize, and a PhD in 1967. He was a Medical Research Council (MRC) postdoctoral fellow at University College, London (1967-1968).

Returning to Nigeria in 1968 with a lectureship in Pharmacology at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Okpako joined the academic staff at the University of Ibadan in October 1969, where he became Professor of Pharmacology in 1977. From 1979 to 1981, he was Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the College of Medicine in Ibadan, and became Coordinator of the University’s Pharmacy Programme from 1979 to 1983, during which period he inaugurated the Bachelor’s degree course in Pharmacy, culminating in the establishment of a Faculty of Pharmacy in Ibadan in 1983. Prof Okpako was Dean of the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan (1987-1990).

He was Visiting Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge (1983-1984), Visiting Professor, University of the Western Cape, South Africa (1995-1996), Visiting Fellow, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (1997-1998), President, West African Society for Pharmacology (1987-1990), President, Nigeria Field Society (1994-2000), and Founding President, Nigerian Institute of Biology (1990-1992). He was also a Fellow of the Institute of Biology, Fellow of the Nigeria Academy of Science, Fellow of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, and Fellow of the African Academy of Science, among other such honours.

A great teacher, researcher, and mentor, Prof Okpako was globally renowned in the specialism of tropical pharmacology and therapeutics. His Principles of Pharmacology: A Tropical Approach remains authoritative in scope and scale, both in its systematic engagement of the discipline as well as in its sensitive explication of the cultural and environmental context within which drugs and medicinal products in general are conceptualized and utilized in societies where traditional healthcare systems and beliefs coexist with orthodox practice.

It was quite fitting that for so many years Prof Okpako was actively associated with our Institute’s programme in Traditional African Medicine and Belief Systems, guiding the scientific investigation of the cultural reasoning underlying healthcare practices in Nigerian indigenous cultures in relation to disease causation, prevention, and treatment. We were honoured when in 2015 his seminal work on aspects of this problem, Science Interrogating Belief: Bridging the Old and New Traditions of Medicine in Africa, was launched and presented to the world at Lady Bank-Anthony Hall in our Institute. We also played host in 2011 to the presentation of the output of Prof Okpako’s painstaking research on Urhobo folklore and music, centring on the Udje oeuvre of the late artist Kpeha, his half-brother.

As the University community mourns, we also celebrate the life of this great man of science and letters. A condolence register has been opened at our Institute in honour of his memory.