The early years of one’s life normally follow a predictable path with any unexpected twists and turns suitably documented for posterity.
But it was not until she was in her sixties that Elizabeth Anionwu, one of the country’s most senior nurses, was able to discover why she ended up spending the best part of her childhood in the care of Roman Catholic nuns.
The revelations came in the form of a thick blue dossier containing almost 60 documents handed over to her from a Catholic children’s home in Birmingham.
“It consisted mainly of letters dating back to my time in my mother’s womb to when I left care, and the words that jumped out of the pages took my breath away,” recalls Elizabeth.
“Up until then I had a few bits of oral history passed down, but literally only bits.”
Her mother, the darling daughter of devout Irish Catholics living in Liverpool, had fallen pregnant while studying classics at Newnham College, Cambridge. The frantic back and forth correspondence between the family and the reverend in charge centred on concealing the pregnancy and whether the baby should eventually be adopted. Perhaps they could even take in the baby themselves, passing it off as their own surprise package?
“There was a great deal of stigma surrounding illegitimacy in those days,” says Elizabeth in somewhat of an understatement.
“But this was only the start of the drama – at this stage, my grandparents were unaware that my father was from Nigeria.”
Despite their renewed shock, they supported her mother’s desire to keep the baby but insisted that Elizabeth be placed in a children’s home at the age of six months so she could resume her studies. But as her mother reveals in further correspondence, she planned to marry her father, who was also studying at Cambridge, and bring her baby home again.
What happens next is told in Elizabeth’s forthcoming autobiography Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union, how she did not get to live with her mother until she was nine, but then only briefly because of her stepfather’s hostility, and only met her father at the age of 24.
But as she herself points out this is no misery memoir. As a professor of nursing and a recipient of the profession’s highest honour, Fellow of the Royal College of Nursing thanks to her pioneering work in nursing practice and education, this is a tale of optimism told with humour and generosity of spirit.
“Writing this book has been painful at times,” says Elizabeth, now a 69-year-old grandmother. “But my life has been extremely fulfilling and I wanted to show that you can still achieve things despite difficult circumstances.”
It is also very much a social history, from Irish life in post-war Britain to the grassroots campaigns waged by the black community around education and health in the 1970s and ‘80s that Elizabeth, a mixed raced woman brought up in an all-white environment, was nevertheless drawn towards.
In particular the book will have great resonance for the many thousands of children born back in the day to white women and African students. They often did not meet their fathers until adulthood and, then, usually through their own efforts, and the impact that this had on them remains a largely untold story.
In Elizabeth’s case, she was eventually reunited with her father, a barrister and a diplomat, following a number of serendipitous events and went on to form an affectionate relationship with him as well as getting to know the other side of her family in Nigeria.
“In terms of identity the final piece of the jigsaw had fallen into place,” she tells me. “It has taken time, but like my role models of Barack Obama and Mary Seacole, I am now at ease with both sides of my parentage.”
As we chat over a cup of coffee, it is clear that Elizabeth is blessed with a sunny personality that was buoyed by the love of her mother and grandparents. But there is also a lot of anger, she reveals, anger at the racism and injustice that cast a shadow over aspects of her childhood.
It was this anger that led her to be at the forefront of revolutionising the diagnosis and management of sickle cell anaemia, an inherited blood disorder that mainly affects people of African origin.
However, as a community nurse in northwest London in the 1970s, she had never heard of the potentially fatal disease that was beginning to fill so much of her caseload. Consulting her superiors left her none the wiser – they had little clue either.
“I asked myself why it was such a neglected condition and could only conclude that it was because it largely affected black people.”
This had grave consequences. Misdiagnosis and poor treatment caused needless suffering and unnecessary deaths. Elizabeth became a founder member of the Sickle Cell Society in 1979 and over the course of the next few years set up a string of sickle cell and thalassaemia counselling, treatment and screening centres, the latter being a related condition affecting people of eastern Mediterranean and south Asian origin.
With knowledge gleaned from working visits to the Caribbean and US, where sickle cell was already part of the medical mainstream, Elizabeth fought hard for further improvement in services, turning down an MBE in 1985 because of lack of government support.
That eventually materialised and today all newborns and pregnant women in England are screened for sickle cell regardless of ethnic origin, a huge advance in public health policy.
In 1997, following a lectureship at the Institute of Child Health, she was appointed Professor of Nursing and Midwifery at Thames Valley University, setting up a centre that aimed to promote the multi-ethnic aspects of nursing practice.
It was named after Mary Seacole, the Jamaican-born, half Scottish Crimea War nurse whom Elizabeth greatly admires for her fortitude in the face of discrimination. “Yet when I started work at the university none of my students had heard of her and I wanted to change all that,” she explains.
So it was no surprise when she lent her energies to the 12-year campaign to raise £500,000 for a memorial statue in her honour. It was finally unveiled to great fanfare in the grounds of St Thomas’ Hospital in June, reflecting yet another chapter in Elizabeth’s own roller coaster journey through life.
Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union by Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu and published by ELIZAN Publishing is to be launched by the Royal College of Nursing on October 5. For more information go to http://www.elizabethanionwu.co.uk
This article originally appeared in the Camden New Journal, September 15, 2016