Agnes Yewande Savage (1906 – 1964)
Influential Scottish-Nigerian doctor, and the first woman of West African heritage to train and qualify in orthodox medicine.
Agnes Yewande Savage was born in Edinburgh in 1906, the daughter of Richard Akinwande Savage Sr - a Nigerian medical doctor, newspaper publisher and a 1900 Edinburgh graduate - and Maggie S. Bowie, a native Scotswoman. Her brother was Richard Gabriel Akinwande Savage, also a doctor and Edinburgh alumnus, who became the first person of West African heritage to receive a British Army commission.
Savage passed exams to the Royal College of Music in 1919 and was given a scholarship to study at George Watson’s Ladies College. There, she received an award for General Proficiency in Class Work and passed the Scottish Higher Education Leaving Certificate.
Savage then enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study medicine, excelling in her studies. In her fourth year, she obtained first class honours in all subjects, won a prize in ‘Diseases of the Skin’, and a medal in Forensic Medicine - the first woman in the history of Edinburgh to do so. She was also awarded the Dorothy Gilfillan Memorial Prize as the best woman graduate in 1929.
Upon her graduation at the age of 23, she was the first West African woman to train and qualify in orthodox medicine.
Medical career and influence
Savage faced gender and racial institutional barriers in her career. After graduation, she joined the colonial service in the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) as a Junior Medical Officer. Though better qualified than most of her male counterparts, she received much fewer benefits.
In 1931, she was recruited by the headmaster of Achimota College, who urged the colonial government to give her a better contract, which they did. She was with Achimota for four years as a medical officer and a teacher.
While there, she came into contact with Susan de Graft-Johnson when the latter was the Girls' School Prefect. Johnson regularly worked with Savage at the sick bay and later went on to also study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, becoming Ghana's first female medical doctor. Another West African woman medical pioneer who studied at Achimota during Savage's tenure and went on to attend Edinburgh was Matilda J. Clerk, who became the first Ghanaian woman to win a university merit scholarship, the second female doctor in Ghana and the fourth West African woman to train as a physician.
After Achimota, Savage went back to the colonial medical service to be in charge of the infant welfare clinics, associated with Korle Bu Hospital in Accra. Concurrently, she was appointed the assistant medical officer to the maternity department of the hospital and warden of the nurses’ hostel. At Korle-Bu, she supervised the establishment of a training school for nurses, Korle-Bu Nurses Training College, where a ward was named in her honour.
Savage retired relatively early due to exhaustion in 1947, and spent the remainder of her life in Scotland raising her niece and nephew. She died in 1964.
Biographical account on the Centre of African Studies website by Henry Mitchell