Dr Agnes Yewande Savage was the first woman of West African heritage to qualify as a doctor. In Nigeria, she is recognised as the first woman Nigerian doctor and celebrated amongst the 120 greatest ever Nigerians.
Agnes’ father, Richard Akiwande Savage, claimed descent from a freed slave from Egba in the South West of what is modern day Nigeria. He had come to Edinburgh as a Medical Student and met Maggie Bowie, a Scottish iron turner’s daughter. The couple married in 1899.
Richard Savage was active in student politics as a member of the Edinburgh University Student Representative Council and President of the Afro-West Indian Society. He graduated in medicine in 1900 and went on to have a career which combined medicine with journalism. His was one of the first voices to call for independence for Nigeria and he was a friend of Nnamdi Azikiwe who became the first President of Nigeria in 1963.
Agnes Yewande Savage was born on 21 February 1906 at 15 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh and joined George Watson’s Ladies’ College at the age of 5, in May 1911.
By that time, she was living with her mother, grandmother and brother at 14 Arden Street, Marchmont. She was clearly a very talented pupil and her school record card shows her winning prizes in a whole range of subjects including Science, Maths and Music. She left Watson’s in 1924 to follow in her father’s footsteps by studying Medicine at Edinburgh University.
Agnes clearly excelled at Medical School. After four years at Edinburgh she obtained first class honours in all her subjects, won a prize in ‘Diseases of the Skin’ and a medal in Forensic Medicine.
By 1930 Agnes had gone to join her father in West Africa, serving as a junior medical officer in what was then the Gold Coast and is now Ghana.
Her early years there were particularly hard. Because of the colour of her skin, the Colonial Office refused to acknowledge her as a European trained doctor and so she was paid as a local employee and given accommodation in the hospital servants’ quarters.
Far from enjoying the comfortable colonial lifestyle of other European trained doctors, Agnes barely had enough money to buy food and she had no means of saving money to travel back to Edinburgh to see her mother, family and friends.
Agnes Savage’s plight came to the attention of Andrew Fraser, headmaster of Achimota College, a newly established institution that aspired to educate the future leaders of the Gold Coast.
Apart from her broad range of educational skills, he saw Agnes as a remarkable model for his pupils. In 1931 he recruited her as both a teacher and medical officer for the School. Agnes worked at Achimota for four enjoyable years before rejoining the Colonial Office medical service with better terms and conditions.
But the work was still very hard. She was put in charge of infant welfare clinics, the maternity department and the nurses’ hostel. In addition, she supervised the establishment of the Nurses Training School at Korle Bu Hospital where a nurses’ ward is named after her.
However, it was not until 1945 that as a black woman Agnes was offered the same terms of service, salary and retirement as her white colleagues.
Fighting this racism took a toll. She became physically and psychologically exhausted, was invalided from the service, and officially retired in 1947. She returned from Africa to live in Hertfordshire with her friend Esther Appleyard who had been Chief Education Officer of the Gold Coast and their Alsatian, Simon.
Agnes died following a stroke in 1964 at the tragically early age of 56, just after both Nigeria and Ghana had achieved independence from Britain.
The Nigerian writer Emeka ‘Ed’ Keazor has researched the lives of the Savage family. He says of Agnes Savage: “She left one of the greatest legacies for Nigerian women by becoming the first Nigerian female to graduate as a medical doctor. Thousands have followed in her footsteps, but her outstanding academic achievements, her pedigree, and the quality of her work stand out.” She “set a sterling example for generations of Nigerian women to follow in years to come. Her life shows that hard work and self-belief can allow one to break barriers.”