Nkanza: Pathologist par excellence
Published On February 15, 2016 » 1924 Views» By Bennet Simbeye » Features
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I AM often asked to give career talks at schools on the Medical profession. The other day I was asked by a brave young pupil who a pathologist is.
I thought the word itself was difficult enough for the pupils to pronounce let alone its explanation.
Before my mind could get around how to best to put it, my heart shot out the words “Professor Neil Nkanza”.
I began to describe the man in order to describe the profession. In thinking about it later I realised this was the best way to do it, because it’s the people that best represent their profession.
In Zambia, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Prof Nkanza was the Father of Pathology and was the best example of what pathology is and what it entails.
The medical profession and the whole country learnt with dismay this past week of the passing of Prof Nkanza.
On Tuesday February 10, 2016, I had just settled in my office, when one of my colleagues came in, with those most alarming words, “ Have you heard the news?” I turned to face him, apprehensive, trying to read the news he had from his face before he said it.
“Prof Neil Nkanza has passed away”. I settled in my chair as the news sank in, and a flood of memories came rushing in.
Paramount of them all was the sense that the country had lost a genius.
When I arrived at the University Of Zambia School of Medicine to do my medical training Prof Nkanza was already a legend.
His lectures in pathology were recited and passed from one student generation to the next long after he left the University of Zambia where he had been teaching pathology for many years.
His career represented the development of Medicine itself in Zambia.
Not only had Prof Nkanza been a pioneer in pathology, but he had been among the first cohort of students to open the new Medical school in Zambia, the UNZA School of Medicine.
He was among the first 16 or so elite students enrolled when the first Medical School training was started in 1966 at what was called the Oppenheimer College now Ridgeway Campus just opposite the University Teaching Hospital along Nationalist Road.
During his burial on Saturday February 13, 2016 the Vice-President Inonge Wina expressed the collective grief of a stricken country and medical fraternity so aptly when she said, he was not only a medical practitioner, and an academic but also an entrepreneur and an innovator. Unfortunately Africa so rarely recognises the success of its own.
So,I thought it might be appropriate to underline a little the genius that was Prof Nkanza.
Who was Prof Neil Nkanza?
When I first met Prof Nkanza I was not sure it was him. He had just left his post at UNZA school of Medicine, when I entered in my first year of Medical training in 1985.
His legacy, however, had lingered like a good aroma. It had amplified itself over the year. So when I meet him for the first time in 2010, over the work of starting post graduate training in pathology at the University of Zambia, I had to rub my eyes twice to be sure it was him.
He had a slight build and an easy going charm, which was quiet disarming.
His legacy over the years both in Medical School and in the country had grown to make him a giant among Doctors.
It was when he began to talk that I realised why his reputation had preceded him with such amazing alacrity.
His understanding of the field of pathology was amazing, he carried me through his career experience in pathology training and when he concluded on what could be achieved in Zambia, I was in awe.
Neil Nkanza was born in April 1946 in Zambezi District North Western Province.
He began his primary school education modestly in Chitokoloki Mission, going on to do secondary education at Solwezi Secondary School and Kabulonga boys where he excelled. He went on to Birmingham, England where he did his A level studies.
He developed an interest in the branch of Medicine dealing with Laboratory diagnosis (Pathology), by his early contact with doctors who were working in this field, such as the renowned pathologist Dr S
B Gore.
When the first Zambian Medical School was opened in 1966, Prof Nkanza, was among the first 16 or so trainees that registered on the programme. During his training his interest in pathology grew by leaps and
So great was his interest in the field of pathology that over the holiday periods instead of spending his holidays having fun with family he spent his free time working in the pathology lab at the UTH.
He graduated among the first medical graduates of the UNZA School of Medicine in 1973.
Some of his compatriots were Isaiah Yikona the first Zambia Radiologist, Elwyn Chomba the first Zambian female Professor of Paediatrics now Permanent Secretary, Evarist Njelesani one of the
first Zambian Directors of Tropical Diseases Research centre/Medical services/Physician to the first President now Dean of School of Medicine Lusaka Apex Medical University and Dr Mushuakwa Mukunyandela the first Zambian Neurologist.
What work did Prof Nkanza do?
Just like some policemen investigate crime in the community, while others investigate crime in the lab. Similarly they are doctors who investigate disease in the hospital and those that investigate disease
in the lab; the later are that rare breed of specialists called pathologists.
Prof Nkanza went and did his specialist training in the United Kingdom, attaining the coveted qualification Fellow of the Royal College of Pathologist (FRCPath).
On his return to Zambia he becomes the first Zambian pathologists.
During this time Prof Nkanza worked at the University Teaching Hospital as a consultant pathologist as well as for the University of Zambia as a lecturer in Pathology.
After working a while in Zambia he moved to Harare, to work at the University of Zimbabwe and the famous Parirenywata Hospital.
He later moved to South Africa becoming Professor of Anatomical Pathology at Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) and consultant pathologist at the Chris Hani Hospital in Johannesburg.
He retired from public practice in South Africa going into private pathology practice. For many this might have been the last we would have heard of the Father of Zambian Pathology, but Prof Nkanza had a passion for his country Zambia.
His concern to help improve the pathology services lead him to establish a network of pathology and lab services which came famously to be called the Nkanza Lancet laboratories.
These pathology services expanded the ability of laboratories services in Zambia to perform many specialized tests of biological tissues and human fluid samples, not available in the government hospitals.
There are now close to five qualified Zambian consultant pathologists practicing in Zambia today, most if not all of them have at one time or other passed through the hands of Prof Nkanza.
There are over 1,500 medical students who have graduated from the University of Zambia school of Medicine since its inception 50 years ago in 1966, most will have heard of and been influenced by Prof Nkanza.
Inspite his very busy work life he continued to teach and lecture at the University of Lusaka where he was executive Dean and the University of Zambia. There is no doubt that he rightly deserves the
title of the Father of Pathology in Zambia.
What legacy does Prof Nkanza leave us?
The Zambia Medical Association held a professional service for Prof Nkanza at the University Teaching Hospital on Saturday February 13, 2016.
The venue was too small to contain the throngs of people in the medical profession who came to pay homage to this great leader of doctors.
When his class mates of the year of 1973 spoke there was no doubt in the minds of those that listened that Prof Nkanza had been a giant in the Medical fraternity not only in Zambia but beyond.
When I ask the medical students at our institution, the Copperbelt University School Medicine, which among the many course they take in their medical training is the most difficult, they will all invariable say pathology.
This is the field in which Prof Nkanza excelled, becoming Emeritus Professor (Distinguished Professor) of Pathology in a number of Universities in Zambia and beyond.
The legacy he leaves is one that will have touched millions of lives in Zambia and the region, a legacy of excellence, innovation and patriotism.
It is my hope that many young people in our schools and university up and down the country will be saying today and for many years to come, “ I want to be like Neil Nkanza”.

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