Kofoworola Abeni Pratt

An African Florence Nightingale

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 1

The National Health Service (NHS) describes the publicly-funded healthcare systems of the United Kingdom. Founded in 1948, the NHS has, since its inception, relied heavily on foreign nationals, a fact that is occasionally paid lip service in times of crisis.

These pioneers of the NHS had to fight to be recognised for their qualifications and skills, rather than their nationality or racial identity. One such pioneer was Kofoworola Abeni Pratt (1915-1992), who is widely recognised as the first black nurse to work in the NHS.

Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Kofoworola started her career as a teacher, working at the United Missionary College in Ibadan. Despite objections from her father, Kofoworola went on to pursue her dream of nursing in 1946 when she moved to England to study at the Nightingale School at St. Thomas' Hospital in London.

During her studies, Kofoworola was an active member of the West African Student Union (WASU), an association of African students in London. Kofoworola was very invested in the pro-independence movements of the Union and her time with the WASU saw her take part in various anti-colonial gatherings.

Kofoworola qualified as a nurse in 1950, working in the NHS for four years. Although her time as a nurse in England was not always smooth with documented experiences of racial discrimination from patients and colleagues alike, Kofoworola persevered serving as a staff nurse at the Evelina Children's Hospital before working as a charge nurse at St. Thomas' Hospital.

Kofoworola remained passionate about her native Nigeria and in 1954 she moved back to a nation galvanised by its fight for independence. Discrimination was still a factor, even back home, with Kofoworola being denied a position as a ward sister at the University College Hospital in Ibadan. Despite her requisite English qualifications, the position was only open to British expatriates.

Kofoworola continued to break down barriers and was appointed deputy matron at the hospital in 1955 before going on to serve as matron in 1964 - the first Nigerian to hold this position.

Outside of her day-to-day nursing endeavours, Kofoworola's career is defined by her leadership, competence and perseverance. Her passion for nursing and experiences as a Nigerian nurse working both at home and abroad saw her take a lead role in establishing formal nursing training in Nigeria, creating the School of Nursing at the University of Ibadan in 1965.

Some of Kofoworola's other accolades include:

  • Founder of the Professional Association of Trained Nurses in Nigeria

  • Founder and co-editor of the journal Nigerian Nurse

  • Chief Nursing Officer to the Federal Ministry of Health in Nigeria

  • Commissioner of Health for Lagos, Nigeria

  • Vice President of the International Council of Nurses

Kofoworola was a pioneer in the nursing world; her position as the first black nurse in the NHS is just the surface of her impact on the nursing profession both at home and abroad.