An extraordinary life: Elizabeth Anionwu

Celebrated nurse Elizabeth Anionwu spent 9 years in care as a child, and her early life was marked by racism and the stigma of illegitimacy.  In her new book, she reveals how she found her Nigerian father, and why being an ‘outsider’ made her a better nurse.
Elizabeth Anionwu

Celebrated nurse Elizabeth Anionwu spent 9 years in care as a child, and her early life was marked by racism and the stigma of illegitimacy.  In her new book she reveals how she found her Nigerian father, and why being an ‘outsider’ made her a better nurse

Before she sat down to write her autobiography, Elizabeth Anionwu interviewed 30 friends and relatives. There were details she couldn’t remember, gaps she needed to fill.  But she also did it because she was determined that this would not be an ‘I, I, I’ memoir; she wanted other people’s perspectives. 

Elizabeth Anionwu

These reflections on Professor Anionwu at different stages in her life – from the thoroughly English nursing student of the 1960s to the ‘radical health visitor’ of the 70s and today’s eminent professor and campaigner, proud of her Nigerian and Irish heritage - are peppered through Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union.

People who knew her 50 or 40 years ago recall a bright, politically curious young woman, who, despite her shyness, was prepared to ask difficult questions. She almost failed her health visiting course after daring to challenge a service’s dubious approach to collecting data on patient ethnicity.

The reflections also deliver one of the book’s jolting moments.  A friend, Janet, says: ‘You were doing well in nursing, but I do remember saying to my sister it’s a shame that Elizabeth will never be able to go very far in nursing because of her colour.

‘I think society has an impact on us all really, and maybe my feeling was that blacks were less intelligent than whites… I thought what a shame almost, what a shame Elizabeth is black because she won’t be able to move forward in her career.’ 

Had she any idea her friend of 50 years had thought this way? ‘No, I didn’t know. I was very surprised – but I was pleased, in a sad way.  She is an incredible person, what she was doing was reflecting on herself, she was acknowledging that she had absorbed racial stereotypes and this was quite shocking for her. She had been brought up thinking black people were inferior.’

At Brent Sickle Cell Centre in 1980

Elizabeth Anionwu has, of course, overcome the barriers that were expected to block her progress in life.  Her achievements are almost too numerous to list but include being the first nurse to lead a groundbreaking sickle cell service in London that has led to babies nationally being screened at birth, and being one of the most prominent leaders of the successful campaign to honour the black nurse Mary Seacole with a statue in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital.  She had a highly successful teaching career and since retiring in 2007 has been emeritus professor of nursing at the University of West London.

Being mixed race in a society which routinely undervalued black people’s ability was only the most visible of the barriers faced by the young Elizabeth.   

A motivation for writing Mixed Blessings was to provide an answer to the big question people always ask her: how has she achieved so much after such a difficult start in life?  ‘When people who thought they knew me heard a little bit about my story – particularly that I had been in care for the first 9 years of my life – the universal response was “how come you never ended up in a psychiatric hospital or addicted to anything?”.’

An unstable upbringing

Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu was born Elizabeth Mary Furlong in 1947, the child of an unmarried 20-year-old English middle-class Catholic girl with Irish roots. Mary Furlong was academically brilliant.  She had won a scholarship to Cambridge to study classics and was in her second year when she fell pregnant by a Nigerian law student.

Elizabeth pictured with her mother at 9 months

The arrival of a mixed race, illegitimate child devastated Mary’s hopes of an academic career. Though a trail of correspondence shows the efforts that were made by the Catholic Church and the university to enable her to resume her studies, she decided to give up Cambridge and find a job, so she could provide a home for her daughter and herself. It didn’t work out that way. 

Professor Anionwu's upbringing was marked by sudden swings between institutions and family; in total, she spent just over two years living with her mother.  A spell with her mother ended when her stepfather, who never accepted her and drank heavily, attacked her.

For much of her childhood she was cared for by nuns, including several years in the Nazareth House convent in Birmingham.  She remembers being made to stand with a urine soaked sheet over her head as a punishment for wetting the bed.  In the book she remarks, coolly, that later in life when working as a health visitor,  ‘I made sure to keep up-to-date with more humane treatments for bedwetting’.

She also remembers sobbing her heart out on the bus when she had to leave the convent to go and live with her mother. Every period of relative stability in childhood ended in sudden collapse.  I ask if the disruption was more hurtful than any episode of abuse. ‘Absolutely. I think it explains why I don’t like change. When I was a student nurse I used to dread the change of wards. I was very shy – a level of shyness where I would feel sick. I think it is because I didn’t have that period of life where you are settled and build your confidence up. There were all those wretched experiences of sudden change and not being sure if people care for you.’ 

Professor Anionwu never set out to write a book that would make the reader cry: ‘I knew my story wasn’t a misery memoir.’  She views it as an exploration of character, the interplay between nature and nurture.

Seized opportunities

She is grateful to both her parents for her intelligence which allowed her, as a young nurse getting by on little money, to make the most of opportunities that came her way: ‘The ability to get scholarships has been incredibly helpful.’

On the nurture side of the equation, she has also ‘taken positives out of negatives’: the child who was constantly on the move grew up to be a supremely adaptable nurse. ‘That sense of being an outsider is helpful, there’s no doubt. It helps you when you are striking up a relationship with a colleague or a patient. It can help you find that link with a stranger, it helps break down the barriers.’  

Her adaptability also stood her in good stead when she finally met her father in June 1972, just a couple of weeks before her 25th birthday.  She had written to her mother asking for information about him in March. Her mother advised her not to search for him but told her all she knew: his name was Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu, from Onitsha in south-eastern Nigeria. He had returned there after qualifying as a barrister and married a Nigerian woman.

After pondering her mother’s letter for three months, she asked a friend who taught Nigerian law students, for advice.  Two days later he called to say he had found her father and spoken to him. He was living in Palmers Green in London and expecting her to call. She met him the next day.

With her father Lawrence Odiatu Victor Anionwu in 1977

Her father being in London was a marvellous fluke, but he soon returned to Nigeria and it is there that she got to know him and her enormous new family. On her first visit she arrived in the middle of a celebration that she thought was a wedding but turned out to be funeral.  She tells me she never felt more English than the next morning, when she woke up to find herself surrounded by whispering female relatives: ‘My attitude was, “you’re in my bedroom! How very dare you”.’

Fatherly advice

She soon grew to love the warmth and ease of her Nigerian family.   Meeting her father was a ‘landmark’ in her life: ‘First of all I felt whole. There had always been something missing, it was like an open wound.’  Now at last she was surrounded by people who looked like her, who accepted her - and who expected her to take her father’s name, which she did with her mother’s approval.

I ask if the 8 years she had with her father before his death, the feeling of knowing who she was, allowed her the confidence to fulfil her potential in her nursing career. ‘That’s obvious. But the other factor is that my father was the first person who gave me any career counselling.

‘I was happy as a health visitor and had no further ambitions at that point but my father saw something in me. He was the one who said “how can you progress in your career?” and that forced me to think. I loved education, so he said “why don’t you become a tutor?’. I applied for and got a scholarship on a course because of him pushing me.’

It also helped that her father – a barrister and a diplomat - was a black role model for career success. 

Professor Anionwu says the lack of black faces on interview panels and in senior positions in the NHS today, makes it harder for BME people starting out in their careers. And too often the onus is on individuals to cope with these conditions, when it is the system itself which needs to change.  She is tired of waiting for change. ‘Come on - we’re in 2016. Something is wrong institutionally.’ 

Staff nurse at Paddington General Hospital, 1968

Time for change

In particular, chief executives and directors of nursing need to ‘see the big picture’ and get over the discomfort they feel when people express anger at the lack of progress. ‘They need to stop worrying about that and get on with sorting it all out and making sure their organisations are healthier places for patients and staff.’

Professor Anionwu says the ‘outrageous’ opposition to the Mary Seacole campaign from some quarters was ‘an attempt at sabotage’. I ask if there is still a reluctance to celebrate black achievement. ‘It’s part of life – we’re used to it,’ she replies.  

In Mixed Blessings she gives a compelling account of her own political awakening in the early 1970s, which included a trip to the United States, where she met civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, organiser of the legendary 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom. (The great man laughed when he heard her English accent – her huge Afro had made him assume she was American.)

But the story ends where it began, with her clever, thwarted mother, who died in 2003. ‘My sister said “You’ve lived the life mum should have also led”.’  

Did her mother ever resent her success? ‘No, never. My brother and sister both said that she never, ever saw herself as a victim.’  She had her books, her religion and a close relationship with all her children: ‘She was intelligent enough to know where to seek solace from.’

That a life so filled with promise became one in need of solace is an injustice at the heart of Mixed Blessings. ‘Why should a brown-skinned child have brought such disruption?’ asks Professor Anionwu. ‘I’ve always had anger over that.’

Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union by Elizabeth N Anionwu, is available online from Waterstones and Amazon, price £14.99. Also available as an ebook.

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