He has been credited by some Nigerians with discovering the cause of the Guinea worm disease, whose cyclops, “Tropocyclops Onabamiroid”, was named after him, and that two other cyclops which he discovered were named after his friend, Dr. Mellamby, and the other after his home-town, Ago-Iwoye. My present findings do not confirm this to be the correct representation of his work.


I have been meaning to write about Professor Sanya Adedojo Onabamiro (1913-1985), an enigmatic man described as a Nigerian Copepodologist and statesman in a 2013 article in the Journal of Crustacean Biology by David M. Damkaer, for as long as I can remember. But I had just not been able to get round to it.

Last week, there were two promptings to do so: first was a post on him in the Nigerian Nostalgia Group on Facebook, and then a reference to him by a friend, in a completely different circumstance. Still, I was not able to. Then, a few days ago, his daughter shared his biography in the same group. I thought I could squeeze time out to write on him in commemoration of his 107th birthday anniversary. Again, I did not get to do this.

I must have been between the ages of 10 and 12 years when I first got to know of Professor Sanya Onabamiro, courtesy of my school principal at the time, Chief Michael Omotade. In the course of his routine admonitions and motivational talk, he would always find a way of making reference to the man and his work around the guinea worm and a discovery of his named ‘Onabamiroi Agoiwoyensis’.

Chief Omotade, if my memory serves me right, studied Biology, and that might have explained his abiding interest in the issue, apart from the groundbreaking nature of Onabamiro’s work. But for those of us just getting introduced to the world of strange-sounding botanical and zoological names, that a Nigerian could have made his way into the pantheon of renowned scientists through his work, and have his name attached to a finding, was so intriguing. As a result, this seeming feat and novelty stuck to my mind ever since.

Apparently, the practice of naming newly-discovered species after the person who made the finding and the place it was found, wasn’t that much of a novelty, as one learnt later, but what did we know at the time? I’m not sure now if there is anything named ‘Onabamiroi Agoiwoyensis’ exactly. But what did we know? What do we even know now?

He has been credited by some Nigerians with discovering the cause of the Guinea worm disease, whose cyclops, “Tropocyclops Onabamiroid”, was named after him, and that two other cyclops which he discovered were named after his friend, Dr. Mellamby, and the other after his home-town, Ago-Iwoye. My present findings do not confirm this to be the correct representation of his work.

Rather, in 1949 Onabamiro had been studying the infectivity of Dracunculus in different species of cyclops, having registered for a PhD degree in Parasitology, for research on “The causes and geographical distribution of DRACONTIASIS, the Guinea-worm disease in South-West Nigeria”, under the supervision of Dr. Mellamby, who was the principal of the University College, Ibadan at the time.

Such was the value and significance of the work of Professor Onabamiro that the Nigerian Academy of Science inducted him in 2010 into her Hall of Fame for Medicine and Engineering, “in recognition of work on the taxonomy and life cycles of Cyclops vectors of guinea-worm disease which formed the basis for development of strategies for the successful eradication of the disease in Nigeria.”


According to Damkaer, Onabamiro sent Nigerian copecods to Knut Lindberg (1892-1962), due to his reports on guinea-worm transmission in India and the Middle East. Lindberg (1950) subsequently reported four cyclopid species (one new record), including the new species – Tropocyclops Onabamiroi.

But the most significant work by Onabamiro was on the ecology of cyclops in South-West Nigeria and its relation to the incidence of the guinea-worm in the region, given that cyclops were intermediate hosts for Guinea worm. Damkaer reports that “Onabamiro devised a seminatural system at Ibadan in which to experiment on the behavior of Cyclops infected with guinea-worm larvae. Onabamiro obtained larvae from infected village children (34 km to the northeast), allowed the larvae to invade copepods in the artificial pond, and observed the vertical distribution of (first) the non-infected and (second) the infected copepods over 12-day periods.”

According to Onabamiro, “the information obtained from this work gives some indication as to which parts of an infected pond used for drinking water in Nigerian villages are likely to be the most dangerous and which are not. The most dangerous parts of an infected pond, as regards guinea-worm infection… are the margins and the bottom anywhere in the pond. Water taken from the surface… where the depth is at least 4 ft. is not likely to be harmful even if it contains infected cyclops, since such infected cyclops as are still active enough to swim to the surface from such a depth could not have harboured the Dracunculus larvae for sufficient time for 2 months to have taken place, only the third-stage larvae are infective in humans.”

Onabamiro later reported one specie, Thermocyclops Nigerianus (1954) as almost the sole vector of the Guinea worm (Dracunculus medinensis) in South-West Nigeria. He had previously described and illustrated other species: Halicyclops Korodiensis (1952); Thermocyclops Iwoyiensis Onabamiro,(1952); and Tropocyclops Mellanbyi Onabamiro,(1952). He also added the new subspecies, Ectocyclops Phaleratus Ilariensis Onabamiro, 1952, which was raised to a species in 1957. He deposited reference specimens at Ibadan and the British Museum (Natural History).

Such was the value and significance of the work of Professor Onabamiro that the Nigerian Academy of Science inducted him in 2010 into her Hall of Fame for Medicine and Engineering, “in recognition of work on the taxonomy and life cycles of Cyclops vectors of guinea-worm disease which formed the basis for development of strategies for the successful eradication of the disease in Nigeria.”

Yet, not much in the early life of Professor Onabamiro gave an indication that his would be such a life of impact and value. According to an account by his daughter, Banke, his birth was difficult, as his mother told him years later that she was in labour for thirteen days. Also, all of his siblings, eight of them, died in infancy, with only him making it to adulthood. His name, Olorunsanya, given to him by his mother, spoke to the trauma that they had been through.

His childhood was to prove more of a topsy-turvy journey with his unorthodoxy. He was said to have opted for Islam at the age of seven. Even though his father was liberal and agreed to his attachment to an Alfa, “his mother, a staunch Christian, almost fanatical in her Christian belief, strongly disapproved of Adedojo’s incursion into the Muslim faith. The attachment was terminated by his mother, removing the boy from Ago-Iwoye to Ibadan to stay first with her sister, Esther Adeola and later with her brother, Chief John O. Ajibola.”

As with some of the academics back then, he got involved in politics. First, with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), before crossing over to the Action Group and becoming minister of Education in the Western Region. He was caught up in the cross-fire that erupted in the region in 1962. After the military took over, he went back to the University of Manchester in 1968…


Onabamiro made a tour of several schools within a short period and did not quite settle until he gained admission into Wesley College, Elekuro, Ibadan, where he trained as a teacher. On completion of his training, he moved around again, before landing in Lagos in 1936.

It was a meeting with an old friend, the later Professor Awokoya, who was then in his final year at the Yaba Higher College, that changed the course of his life. As narrated in the Facebook post: “One evening, on accompanying Mr Awokoya back to his College, Mr Onabamiro was amazed to see students immaculately dressed in white, being served at the table by uniformed stewards and the student’s dinner tables loaded with all nice things a man could wish to eat. Also, while strolling around the college grounds, Mr Awokoya showed Mr Onabamiro some buildings which he told him were called science laboratories. On getting back home that night, in late January 1936, Mr Onabamiro resolved to put aside playful things and embark on serious studies to be able to enter that Yaba Higher College.”

Awokoya taught him Mathematics. Another student of the College, U.B. Ugot, taught him Biology on Saturdays, for a small fee of five shillings a month. Onabamiro sat for the Cambridge School Certificate Examination in December 1936 and when the result came in February 1937, he passed with exemption from London Matriculation, with Credit in all the subjects taken including Biology, in spite of having not been inside a science laboratory in his life.

That was how the journey began: From Yaba Higher College, after a teaching stint, he went on to obtain a B.Sc from University of Manchester in 1947, and from there to the University of Oxford, where he studied for one academic session in the Department of Education before returning to Nigeria in 1948. On January 1, 1949, Onabamiro took up appointment at the then University College, Ibadan as research assistant under Dr. Kenneth Mellamby. Onabamiro is reputed to have been the first to qualify for a PhD in any colonial university.

As with some of the academics back then, he got involved in politics. First, with the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC), before crossing over to the Action Group and becoming minister of Education in the Western Region. He was caught up in the cross-fire that erupted in the region in 1962. After the military took over, he went back to the University of Manchester in 1968 to update himself. He was with the University of Sierra Leone from 1969 to 1973, before coming back to Nigeria to join the federal civil Service, serving at one point as the principal of the Federal School of Arts and Science, Ogoja. Professor Sanya Onabamiro was conferred with the national honour of Commander Order of the Niger (CON). He was also the Fuwagboye of Ago-Iwoye.

At his passing, Professor Olorunsanya Adedojo Onabamiro, had 15 children, to make up for the loss of his eight siblings, as the only one of his mother’s children to grow to adulthood.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy and publisher of Africa Enterprise. Twitter: @simboolorunfemi