Posted by Timige, On 1 Jan, 2021 | Updated On 7 Dec, 2021 No Comments »
Dr Agnes Yewande Savage was probably first West African woman to qualify in medicine. An outstanding student at Edinburgh, Agnes obtained first class honours in all her subjects, winning awards in skin disease, forensic medicine (becoming the first woman to do so), and the prestigious Dorothy Gilfillan Memorial Prize for the best woman graduate in 1929.
Born at 15 Buccleuch Place, in 1906, to a Nigerian father and Scottish mother, Agnes however faced huge institutional barriers – dictated both by race and sex – once she qualified. These barriers, in turn, have meant it has only been possible to reconstruct Agnes’ remarkable life history through correspondence with her nephew, Mike Savage – despite the key roles she played in the early histories of numerous important Ghanaian institutions.
Yewande’s Employment Ordeal in Ghana British Colony
Though better qualified than her white male counterparts when appointed in 1930 as a junior medical officer in colonial Ghana, Agnes was paid discriminatory wages and lived in servants’ quarters. In 1931, Andrew Fraser, headmaster of Achimota College – then a new school established to educated a new cohort of African leaders – heard of her struggles and recruited Agnes as both a teacher and medical officer.
Also connected to the Korle Bu Hospital, Agnes went on to establish the nurses’ training school and work in the hospital’s maternity department – considerable achievements – but it was not until 1945 after extensive and exacting correspondence with the Colonial Office that Agnes, as a black European, was given equal terms of employment, salary and retirement.
She retired in 1947, exhausted after a life fighting institutional racism. Her remarkable life has only been sparingly referenced elsewhere.
Fighting Against Racism
Mike Savage, Agnes’ nephew, has recalled that after graduating from Edinburgh, in 1930 Agnes was appointed as a junior medical officer in the Gold Coast, Ghana. Her early years were particularly hard. The Colonial Office was her employer and she was contracted under local terms.
Though rich by local standards, Agnes could not afford to hire a cook; meat was a luxury; she had to travel by bus; and had three weeks holiday every year. Her white British colleagues, usually not as skillful, educated or dedicated, had salaries that enabled them to eat whatever they pleased; food that had been cooked, served and cleaned by an army of servants; rode in their own cars driven by uniform-clad chauffeurs; sent their children to the best British fee-paying schools and universities; and had three months paid leave in the UK every three years (transport home paid).
So, though better educated, qualified, and skillful than most of her white British colleagues, being black, Agnes lived as a local employee in hospital servants’ quarters without any chance of ever again seeing her mother, home or friends.
Agnes Savage’s plight came to the attention of Andrew Fraser, headmaster of Achimota College a newly established institution close to Accra the capital, 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. Fraser pleaded her case with the Colonial Office, and Agnes was given a European contract. For four years Agnes worked at Achimota where she really enjoyed her time before rejoining the Colonial Office medical service. When she did so, a so called concession was made and Agnes was given, “…leave and passage terms of a European.”
Her joint appointment was being given charge of the infant welfare clinics associated with the Korle Bu Hospital, Kumasi; assistant medical officer to the maternity department; and warden of the nurses’ hostel.
In addition, Agnes supervised the establishment of the Nurses Training School at Korle Bu where a nurses’ ward is named after her. However, it was not until 1945 after extensive correspondence with the Colonial Office that Agnes as a black European was offered the same terms of service, salary and retirement as a White one.
Agnes Yewande’s Death
Fighting this racism took a toll. She became physically and psychologically exhausted, was invalided from the service, and officially retired in 1947. However, with her friend Esther Appleyard she lived a comfortable life in Hertfordshire, England, caring for her brother’s son and daughter during their school holidays though ghosts from the past did haunt her. She died of a stroke in 1964.
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