Honouring Our Trailblazing Sister: The Inspiring Journey of Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu”

In a world where heroes often wear capes, Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu chose a nurse’s uniform as her symbol of compassion, resilience, and change. Born on the 2nd of July, 1947, in Birmingham, England, her journey began as Elizabeth Mary Furlong, the child of an Irish mother, Mary Maureen Furlong, and a Nigerian father, Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu, a law student at Cambridge University at the time.

Anionwu’s early years were marked by constant shifts between institutions and family members. For a brief period, she resided with her mother, an experience cut short by an abusive stepfather. Subsequently, she found herself under the care of nuns in a Catholic children’s home, including several years spent in the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham.

Her childhood was scarred by severe punishment and humiliation, including being made to wear a urine-soaked sheet over her head as a penalty for bedwetting. Later in life, as a health visitor, she resolved to advocate for more humane treatments for bedwetting.

Despite her turbulent upbringing, Anionwu’s determination shone through. She embarked on a nursing career, starting as a school nurse assistant in Wolverhampton at the tender age of 16. Over time, she achieved seven O-levels and eventually became a nurse, health visitor, and tutor.

In pursuit of knowledge and expertise not available in the UK at the time, Anionwu ventured to the United States to study counselling for sickle-cell and thalassemia centres. In 1979, she collaborated with Dr. Milica Brozovic to establish the UK’s inaugural sickle-cell and thalassemia counselling centre in the London Borough of Brent, a pioneering initiative that would serve as a model for over 30 such centres across the UK.

Anionwu’s academic journey continued as she assumed the role of lecturer at the Institute of Child Health, University College London, eventually rising to the position of senior lecturer. Collaborating with Professor Marcus Pembrey, she taught courses at University College London aimed at NHS staff members working with communities affected by or at risk of sickle-cell disease, cystic fibrosis, Tay–Sachs disease, and thalassaemia.

Her career reached new heights when she became the dean of the School of Adult Nursing Studies and Professor of Nursing at the University of West London. It was during this tenure that she established the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice, a testament to her unwavering commitment to nursing excellence. Her retirement in 2007 marked the conclusion of a truly remarkable era.

Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu’s contributions extend beyond the field of healthcare. In 2016, she penned her memoirs, titled “Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union,” offering readers a window into her extraordinary journey. In 2021, she updated her memoirs with “Dreams From My Mother,” published by Seven Dials, an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group.

Anionwu’s accolades are numerous and richly deserved. She was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2001 Birthday Honours for her contributions to nursing. In 2004, she was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal College of Nursing (FRCN) in recognition of her work in developing sickle-cell and thalassemia counselling centres. In 2017, she was honoured as Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to nursing and the Mary Seacole Statue Appeal.

In acknowledgement of her substantial contributions to nursing, research, and advocacy, the University of St Andrews conferred upon her the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, in 2019. Birmingham City University also granted her an honorary doctorate in the same year.

In October 2019, Anionwu was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Pride of Britain Awards, a recognition of her commitment to reducing health inequalities. Janet Jackson herself had the privilege of presenting the award.

On the 31st of May 2020, Anionwu was featured in an episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, an honour that underscored her extraordinary journey and enduring influence. Later that year, on the 23rd of November, she was recognised as one of the BBC’s 100 Women.

In 2022, Anionwu was granted membership in the Order of Merit, a reflection of her profound impact on society.

In May 2023, she was honoured to carry the Sovereign’s Orb during the Royal procession at the Coronation of Charles III and Camilla, a testament to her esteemed status in British society. As we celebrate Black History Month, we pay tribute to our sister, Professor Dame Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu, a beacon of inspiration and resilience.