A "library" has indeed burned down. Dr. Oku Ampofo, who died on February 18th in his home of Mampong-Akuapim, nestled among the rolling hills in Ghana, was a vast library of information on Ghana's medicinal plants. He was most likely the last Western-trained physician who also possessed the knowledge of many traditional herbalists who had passed on over the last 50 years.
He was beloved by all -- by the herbalists, who entrusted him with their secrets because he showed respect for them and was genuinely interested in their work and by his patients, who cherished him, trusted him completely, and who benefited by his healing touch. He used the tools with which they were familiar -- their traditional herbal medicines. Herbalists came to him until the day he died, sharing with him secrets both new and old.
He was one of a kind, a multi-talented man in medicine, music, and the arts. His one ambition was to serve humanity. He served his family, his village, Akuapim, and the entire nation. He was totally selfless and unassuming, able to relate to people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Dr. Oku Ampofo was born on a small cocoa plantation just outside Adawso, on November 4, 1908, to Chief Kwasi Ampofo and Madam Akua Adwo. During his early childhood his father's family bought land at Amanase which became their home. He described his father as kind, gentle, and loving. When his father was made Chief of Amanase, Oku, as a young child, enjoyed sitting on the sheep's skin placed in front of his father during court sessions.
In 1932, he was awarded a Gold Coast (Ghana's former name) government scholarship to study medicine. After a pre-medical course, he left for Edinburgh University in Scotland in 1933.
During his seven years' stay in Edinburgh, despite the rigorous demands of the medical course, he studied sculpture and music. In 1939, he qualified as a doctor at the Royal College of Surgeons and followed this up with short courses at the Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm and the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. In 1940 he returned home to Ghana as a fully qualified medical doctor.
Having been told by the Director of Medical Services that there was no vacancy for African doctors, he set about looking for capital to establish a medical practice in Mampong. Unable to raise a loan with a reasonable interest rate, he started his practice anyway with 25 pounds. With such little capital, he had to make weekly trips to Accra to replenish his stock of medical supplies. In a very short time, he gained a reputation as a skillful and greatly loved practitioner. Many patients were treated free of charge. Dr. Ampofo also conducted research into the treatment of a number of tropical diseases that plagued the inhabitants of Akuapim. Among these were yaws [a tropical skin disease caused by Treponema pertenue, characterized by multiple red pimples, also called "frambesia"], tuberculosis, and tropical ulcers. He established another clinic in Suhum and recommended the creation of sick bays and school clinics.
I met Dr. Ampofo in early 1963, shortly after he began working with the traditional herbalists. I first went to Ghana in 1962 as part of a National Institutes of Health research group. We had gone on the heels of the first Peace Corps group that was sent to Ghana by President Kennedy, both groups having been requested by President Kwame Nkrumah.
Having returned to his native village to practice medicine, Ampofo was facing a lack of import licenses for foreign drugs, and was just starting to work with the traditional herbalists to discover what they were using. He was the first of the Western-trained physicians who showed respect for the herbalists and, as a result, they shared their secrets with him. His purpose was to discover plants that were cheaper and more available to the local people. In the process, he found that, in his opinion, many were better than Western medicine.
His memory was incredible; up until the very end, he remembered every plant he had ever used, he knew the botanical name, what part was used, the habitat (down to a particular comer round the bend of a particular village, just behind the tallest silk cotton tree where a particular bush grew and there only), the course of treatment, the other plants that were prepared with it and in what proportion, which patients were treated, the number of patients whom he had treated and the success rate, how quickly they were helped, and whether they were completely cured or continued taking the treatment.
Much of what he knew he credited to "Diane's First Husband." It was because of an old herbalist, S. Adu Dako from Akropong, who claimed to have cured a woman with breast cancer, I was first invited to meet at Dr. Ampofo's home. The old man took one look at this 23-year-old American woman and, at the ripe age of 91, announced to Dr. Ampofo that he wanted to take me as his thirteenth wife, because he had never had a white wife before. We carried on this wonderful charade for well over a year, even meeting with wife number 12 and eventually asking the old man's permission to take a second husband when I became engaged to a Scottish banker. It took some time of introspection before he reluctantly granted me the permission I sought. Those were wonderful days full of learning -- learning the value of the plants, how to make the preparations, testing them on rats in my lab at Korle Bu Hospital. To the day he died, Dr. Ampofo referred to the old herbalist in conversation as "Diane's Fir st Husband" and credited him with many discoveries that helped many people.
In 1976, the government recognized Dr. Ampofo's efforts and set him up in the Centre for Scientific Research into Plant Medicine in his hometown of Mampong-Akuapim. We were there for the groundbreaking of the Centre, and I have raised money over the years to help to support its work. The Centre, according to Dr. Norman Farnsworth, is the only plant medicine research center he knows of that has a clinical unit. They currently see approximately 1,600 patients a month and treat diseases such as hypertension, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, malaria, gout, diarrhea, piles, epilepsy, herpes, and other skin diseases. Patients are seen jointly by an herbalist and a Western-trained physician. The Centre also has a clinical laboratory, a phytochemistry laboratory, a pharmacology laboratory, an animal house, a herbarium, an arboretum, several farms, a production unit, and a dispensary. The staff are encouraged to pursue advanced studies and regularly participate in conferences, seminars, and symposia. Dr. Farnsworth visited Ghana in 1994 and was impressed by the potential for good work being done at the Centre.
In an article published in HerbalGram No. 31, Dr. Ampofo was quoted as saying that "the beauty of traditional medicine is that there is a hope of discovering something yet unknown to the Western world."
He was "convinced that among all these thousands of plants around us, there are some with as yet unknown bioactive principles. If we can find useful applications for these, we shall have made a significant contribution to the world of medicine."
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Diane Robertson Winn