Dr. (Mrs.) Susan de-Graft Johnson (Nee Ofori-Atta) was one of the three children Nana Sir Ofori-Atta I, the Okyenhene and Paramount Chief of the Akyem Abuakwa Traditional Area, had with Nana Akosua Duodu.
Dr. de-Graft Johnson began her working life as a midwife, then studied medicine and became the first Gold Coast female doctor and climbed further on the ladder of her profession to become a paediatrician. Her quest for more knowledge concerning malnutrition problems among children led her into the field of medical research into children’s malnutrition. She named the findings of her research work “Kwashiokor”, a Ga word which became part of the medical vocabulary.
Auntie Susan was born at Kyebi in 1917. The little princess in the Royal Court at Kyebi was the apple of the chief’s eyes. Nana Ofori Atta followed her growth and process in life as a little child with love and admiration. She, in turn, entertained her father as a precocious child. The chief saw in her an intellect to be developed to the highest institute of learning. Nana took the first step by dispatching her to the St. Mary’s Convent at Elmina in 1921.
There, she started her primary school and, as was expected, she excelled so much that at the age of 12, she entered Achimota Secondary School in 1929; just two years after Achimota College had been opened in 1927. She was thus one of the pioneering students. Throughout her years at Achimota, she was among the top in her class and exhibited such excellence and brilliance in her academic work that she was one of the few women who made it to the final year and sat for the Cambridge School Certificate and passed. She was the Girls’ Head Prefect in her final year.
On completion of her secondary education, she entered the Korle-bu Midwifery Training School and qualified in 1935. She practised midwifery for two years and then left for Scotland to do a further course in midwifery. However, she was encouraged to undertake a premed course for entry into the Edinburgh University Medical School.
When she successfully gained entry to the Edinburgh University Medical School, her father, Nana Ofori Atta, sponsored her to do medicine. She qualified as a doctor in 1949 and obtained her MB, Ch.B Degrees, the first Gold Coast female to attain that glory.
She returned home a heroine in 1949. She was first posted to Korle-bu but was later on transferred to the Kumasi Hospital in 1951. She showed a keen interest in maternity and paediatric cases. As a former midwife, it was natural that she immersed herself in this work so much so that she became the darling doctor to many pregnant women and nursing mothers in Kumasi.
The hospital authorities also took notice of her interest in that field and brought her back to Accra, but this time she was posted to the Princess Marie Louise Children’s Hospital in central Accra. She was the doctor in charge of that hospital for many years.
It was while she was at that hospital that she undertook research work into malnutritional problems among children.
Her research brought to the fore deep knowledge about that problem among children. She took measures to prevent its occurrence and the management of those who unfortunately had already acquired it. There was no doubt that her work in that field helped children tremendously. She named this condition “Kwashiokor”, a Ga word which became a medical word internationally.
When the University of Ghana Medical School was set up, she left the Princess Marie Louise Hospital to join the medical school. She was a founding member of the Paediatiric Department. She retired from the Medical School and set up her own clinic, known as the Accra Clinic. It was a tribute to her that mothers flocked to her clinic in their numbers with their children. The mothers were well taken care of. She doted on her patients and could spend a lot of time to examine them and treat them of their ailments. Her popularity with the mothers and children soared to such an extent that many children were named after her. Susan became a popular name.
Auntie Susan was so immersed in her work as a doctor and her research work in Kwashiokor that she married late. She married Dr. E.V.C. de-Graft Johnson, a renowned barrister-at-law and changed her name Ms. Susan Ofori-Atta, which was then a household name, to Dr. (Mrs.) Susan de-Graft Johnson.
While she was at the St Mary’s Convent in Elmina, Little Susan became a Catholic and remained so for the rest of her life. She took a very active part in the affairs of the Catholic Church in Ghana, especially the Accra diocese. She joined the Federation of Association of Catholic Medical Doctors and became one of its executives. She was also a member of the Ghana Catholic Doctors Association. She worked tirelessly for these two associations and in recognition of her services to the Catholic Church, especially in offering free medical services, Pope John Paul II decorated her with the Royal cross when he visited Ghana in 1980.
This award was one of many which came her way because of the immeasurable contribution she made towards the improvement of the health and welfare of mothers and children.
As a doctor whose main concern was for the health and welfare of mothers and children, she naturally became a member of the Women Society for Public Affairs, of which she was a founding member and the main pillar. She used it as a vehicle to advance the cause of women. Dr de-Graft Johnson made it absolutely clear that she was against the Akan system of inheritance and advocated a law to address the issue and give right to the spouses and children to inherit their deceased spouses and fathers who died intestate.
It is a tribute to her that many years after she started that campaign, she won her battle when the law was changed with the promulgation of the intestate succession law by the PNDC in 1985.
She was a member of the 1969 Constituent Assembly which drafted the Constitution for the Second Republic of Ghana and in that august house she advocated and espoused the causes of women and children.
She was a Foundation Fellow of the Ghana Academic of Arts and Science and shared that honour with another lady as the first female fellows of the academy. She was for many years the Honourary Treasurer of the academy and as usual, she worked hard for the academy and made many valuable contributions to it.
The University of Ghana, in 1974, conferred on her a Doctor of Science degree (honoris causa) for her pioneering research work into malnutrition, “Kwashiokor”.
Her unique position as the first female Gold Coast doctor made her a symbol of inspiration and a role model for many young girls. She did not rest on her laurels but continued to work hard as a research medical scientist, Fellow of the Ghana Academic of Arts and Sciences, women and children’s rights activist and, most important, as a volunteer doctor for both the Ghana Catholic Association and the international one.
In the twilight of her life, she lived in Britain and made her journey to the Almighty from there in July 1985.
She will long be remembered for her pioneering work and research in medicine in the Gold Coast and Ghana, her social work for women and children and, most important, as the first Gold Coast female doctor.
*Source: Daily Graphic Friday, October 12, 2007 Page: 11