Matthew Arnum Barnor

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 24 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1273

Physician who played a leading role in the development of Ghana's health service

Matthew Arnum Barnor was one of the most influential figures in Ghana's medical profession, and had a leading role in the development of the country's health service after independence. He founded a hospital, was a former president of the Ghana Medical Association, and helped set up the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana.

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Born in Accra, in the then Gold Coast, in 1917, he won a British government scholarship to study medicine and left for Edinburgh University on the Belgian ship Copacabana during the second world war. It was one of seven ships travelling in a convoy over the Atlantic and it had several west African students on board. One of the other boats in the convoy was torpedoed, and the Copacabana's captain drafted the students into “submarine watch.”

After qualifying and house jobs at the Western Infirmary, Edinburgh, Dr Barnor worked in Sunderland during the early years of the NHS before moving to London to study for the diploma in tropical medicine and hygiene.

In 1950 he joined the Gold Coast Colonial Medical Service. In those days Africans who successfully completed their medical training were posted to deprived areas of the country. After being employed as medical officers, they were put on probation for three years. All senior servants, including Africans, were on equal salaries if they occupied identical positions. The difference was that the Europeans received an expatriate allowance and worked in the European Hospital. The crown employed the first Ghanaian doctor in 1887. The next Ghanaian doctor was not appointed until 1926. In 1949 the Gold Coast was on the verge of a representative form of government. There were a total of 84 doctors, of whom only 17 were Gold Coast Africans, and the remainder expatriate Europeans.

After independence in 1957 Dr Barnor retired from the government service. He had served in each of the nine district regions in Ghana and he realised the need to be in Accra.

In 1958 he set up the Link Road clinic, Accra, which assumed hospital status in 1972. It was a fine hospital that still functions, offering both primary care services and secondary care services in a fee paying facility.

Dr Barnor was instrumental in founding the Ghana Medical Association (GMA), and was elected honorary first secretary of the GMA in 1958. He was president of the GMA from 1963 to 1966, during which he steered the association through some stormy waters.

He also turned his attention to medical education. In 1962 he was a member of the interim council of the medical school before its conversion to a faculty of the University of Ghana. He lectured on professional responsibility and ethics for the first 10 years of the school's existence.

Dr Barnor co-founded the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana in 1967, working with the International Planned Parenthood Association. He was the first vice president and general adviser until 1985.

His high position in the GMA and other professional bodies brought him into some tough situations with Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and subsequently with General Kutu Acheampong and government ministers of other Ghanaian regimes. His medical colleagues, however, greatly trusted him as he deliberately steered an apolitical course.

He was the chairman of the management committee of the University of Ghana Legon Hospital, which catered for staff and students of Ghana's first university. He retired voluntarily in 1989 as a result of pressure from other commitments.

Dr Barnor retired from medical practice in 1994. He received many national and international awards, including, in 2003, fellowship of the West African College of Physicians. In April 2005 he was one of 10 doctors honoured with a Lifetime of Achievement Award by the government of Ghana and the Ghana Medical and Dental Council.

He never forgot his roots in Edinburgh and kept in touch with his colleagues, attending all the important reunions. His academic colleagues visited Ghana as lecturers and external examiners of the medical school in the early years.

He leaves a wife, Dorothy; five children; and 14 grandchildren.

Matthew Arnum Barnor, former family physician, president Ghana Medical Association, founding father Planned Parenthood Association Ghana, founder Link Road Hospital, Accra, Ghana (born 1917; q Edinburgh 1947; DTM&H), d 20 June 2005.

[E Evans]


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