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Biographical entry Wellesley-Cole, Robert Benjamin Ageh (1907 - 1995)

MRCS and FRCS 1944; DOMS 1950; BA Hons London 1928; MB BS Durham 1934; MD Durham 1943; MS Durham 1944; FRCS Edinburgh 1944.

11 March 1907
Freetown, Sierra Leone
31 October 1995
General practitioner, General surgeon and Ophthalmologist


Robert Wellesley-Cole was born in Kossoh, Freetown, Sierra Leone on 11 March 1907, the eldest son of Wilfred Sidney Ageh, a civil engineer and superintendent of Freetown waterworks, and Elizabeth, née Okafor-Smart, a West African of Krio race. His Nigerian great-grandfather had settled in Freetown to escape slave traders, and had adopted the family name of Wellesley out of admiration for the Duke of Wellington.

He was educated at the Sierra Leone Grammar School in Freetown, where he excelled academically and won a place to study mathematics at Fourah Bay College. After becoming assistant lecturer in mathematics, he took an external BA degree (with honours in philosophy) in 1928 at London University. In the same year he came to England to study medicine at Newcastle-upon-Tyne Medical School, where he won numerous prizes and graduated with first class honours from Durham University in 1934.

After qualifying he held junior appointments at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he was one of the last group of students taught by Professor Grey Turner before the latter went to the Postgraduate Medical School at Hammersmith.

He volunteered for military service in the second world war but was not enlisted. In 1944 he became the first black African to gain the Fellowship of the College, but would have had to overcome considerable racial prejudice to follow a surgical career in England at that time. Instead he decided to work in general practice in Newcastle and served on several Colonial Office advisory committees, dealing with medical education and social services in West Africa. He was also committed to the welfare of colonial peoples in Britain, and worked for the promotion of African culture.

With the founding of the NHS in 1948 he gave up general practice in order to pursue a full-time career in surgery, and passed his examinations in ophthalmology in 1950. In 1961 he was appointed senior surgical specialist in Western Nigeria, and in 1971 consultant surgeon and director of clinical studies in Sierra Leone.

His first marriage in 1932 to Anna Brodie, his Scottish former landlady, was dissolved, and in 1950 he moved to Nottingham and married a second time to Amy Hotobah-During, a nurse from Sierra Leone whose father was a barrister, and by whom he had four children.

Robert Wellesley-Cole was a man of great culture and academic and literary ability. In 1959 he wrote a book about his childhood, Kossoh Town Boy, and his autobiography, An Innocent Abroad, was published in 1988. He founded a literary club in Freetown, and he was an accomplished pianist and organist. He was invited to become a Justice of the Peace in 1961, the first time this invitation had been extended to a black African in Britain, but ironically he was refused a British passport until 1982.

He died on 31 October 1995, aged 88. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, one of whom, Patrice Suzanne, read law at Oxford.

Sources used to compile this entry: [The Times 2 December 1995, with portrait].

The Royal College of Surgeons of England