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A British nurse who became the UK’s first sickle cell specialist at 73 years old

The celebrated British nurse, Elizabeth Mary Furlong, also known as Elizabeth Nneka Anionwua, is health care administrator, lecturer, and Emeritus Professor of Nursing at the University of West London. But growing up as a child, she had to face challenges.

She was born in Birmingham, to an Irish mother who was in her second year studying Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge University and a Nigerian father studying Law at Cambridge University. However, her birth caused several problems for her mom Mary Maureen Furlong, who was unable to tell her strict catholic parents about the sudden pregnancy. She had also had thought about jumping in a river to end it all.

Luckily, Mary gave birth on July 2nd, 1947, and when she found out that the baby was Black and that her father was Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu of Nigerian origins, tension and distress were in the air. Birthing a Black baby out of wedlock and dropping out of school made Mary’s parents furious.

Elizabeth Nneka Anionwua via Royal College of Nursing. Image credit F2FA

In this difficult scenario, Elizabeth had to be raised by a couple of nuns at the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham with her mum Mary paying regular visits to see her baby. Although punished once in a while by some of the nuns for wetting the bed, she still grew very much attached to the facility, as when her mum came to get her after nine years to eventually live with her, she was confused and saddened, as one nun cum nurse treated her sores with care.

The period living with her mother was full of ups and downs, but when her stepfather started physically to abuse her because he did not accept the fact that a coloured girl was living with him, her stay ended when she was shipped to her maternal grandparents.

Still unknown to her, the arrangement was that she will be returned to her mom on the attainment of her 16th birthday. She, once again, had to deal with the frustration of being transferred just when she was enjoying some stability.

She eventually decided to become a nurse to give back the so missed cuddles. She then pursued the career in the health sector becoming a health visitor, preferring the latter as she could visit recovering patients at home.

Although she hadn’t had any real talk about her father with her mother, she eventually asked when friends kept asking her about where she came from originally, despite having a strong Birmingham accent.

Cut off from her African side and only knowing some African friends such as a Sierra Leonean, Elizabeth asked him if he could find out which ethnic group his father’s surname belonged to in Nigeria.

Sickle Cell Society co-founder Dame Elizabeth Anionwu with Janet Jackson at the Pride of Britain Awards. Image credit: Tim Merry/ F2FA

Her friend, who was a law lecturer, did one better by finding out that her father who was still in the UK. She decided to take it to a step further. Before her 25th birthday, she went to find and meet her father, who was a barrister and former Nigerian Ambassador to Italy and the Vatican, Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu from Onitsha in south-eastern Nigeria. She, therefore, took all the courage she had when deciding to go to Nigeria, meet the family and take on her father’s surname.

Elizabeth though wasn’t tired yet. She travelled to the United States to study counselling for sickle cell and thalassemia centres, and in 1979 worked with Dr Milica Brozovic to create the first UK sickle cell and thalassemia counselling centre in Brent, followed by 30 other professionals across the country.

Elizabeth, who became the UK’s first sickle cell nurse specialist at 73 years old, is today an emeritus professor of nursing at the University of West London. She fiercely campaigned to have a statue of Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole erected in St Thomas’ Hospital in 2016.

Nonetheless, for her services and contributions to nursing practice, she received the award of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, conferred on her by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017.

It is deeply moving to get to share and know how many strong but inspiring and encouraging stories our country embraces and are yet to be revealed.


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