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Black British nurse and academic, Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu (b. 1947), was in a children’s home and kinship care as a child.

Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Mary Furlong in Birmingham, England. Her parents met while studying at Cambridge University. Her mother, Mary Furlong, was Irish Catholic, and her father, Lawrence Odiatu Anionwu, was Nigerian. At the time, a relationship between a white woman and black man was considered scandalous.  

My mother came from a devout Irish Catholic family and the stigma of being unmarried was so great that she couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents that she was pregnant, let alone that the baby’s father wasn’t white. (Mistlin) 

Mary’s parents initially planned to pass their granddaughter off as their daughter. However, Anionwu was placed into care because of her brown skin. Anionwu’s mother regularly visited her at Nazareth House, a children’s home in Birmingham run by Catholic nuns. She stayed there for nine years. 

I decided I wanted to be a nurse at about 4 or 5 when I was at a convent. I had very bad eczema and one of the nuns, who was a nurse, used to make me laugh to distract me when she changed my dressings – she was so kind. And from that moment on I vowed to be a nurse and I’ve never regretted that decision. (Miller) 

Anionwu yearned for a typical, middle-class upbringing. Many of the nuns were very strict at Nazareth House. To make matters worse, she was made to feel like an outsider because of her skin colour.  

Things happened all the time that made me aware I was different. Nobody in the convent knew how to deal with my hair… I remember a missionary nun coming in to give us a talk about poverty in Africa, which made me feel really embarrassed, because some of the other children were pointing at me and laughing. (Mistlin)  

At the age of nine, Anionwu returned to live with her mother after she got married. Her step-father, who was ostracised for having a mixed-race step-daughter, became physically abusive. So, Anionwu went to live with her maternal grandparents in Wallasey, Merseyside until she was sixteen.    

Then, at the age of seventeen, Anionwu unsuccessfully applied to train as a nurse at several teaching hospitals in London. Anionwu, who achieved very high marks in school, explains how being denied admission was seemingly the result of racism and social stigma.  

At the time, application forms required a profile photo and details of your father’s occupation – which I left blank. (Mistlin) 

Finally, at age eighteen, Anionwu was accepted to train as a nurse at Paddington General Hospital in west London. Then, during the course of her health visiting studies, Anionwu learned that local authorities had been provided with funding to provide services for migrants which were not being offered. Her supervisor gave her a failing mark for raising concerns about the matter. She later passed on an appeal. This began Anionwu’s lifetime of activism fighting against racial discrimination. 

I probably was rude at times, but it was definitely because I was challenging them on their treatment of black- and brown-skinned families. (Mistlin) 

Anionwu first learned the name of her father at the age of twenty-four. Three months later she found out that he was temporarily living in London. Anionwu met her father for the first time at age twenty-five, and later changed her surname to his. She formed relationships with other members of her extended family, and when her father returned to Nigeria, she travelled there to meet them. 

He showed me off in front of his relatives and I was accepted as Anionwu’s daughter and not constantly made to feel different because of my skin colour. (Mistlin) 

Anionwu began raising public awareness of sickle cell anaemia after learning that one of her cousins had the disorder. Sickle cell anaemia is an inherited blood disorder common in people with African and Caribbean heritage. 

In 1979 Elizabeth helped set up Sickle and Thalassaemia Screening and Counselling Centre at Willesden General Hospital in Brent, London. 

It was when I was a health visitor in Brent and three of the families I was looking after had children with sickle cell anaemia. There was no support for them because nobody knew what it was – that’s what I wanted to change (Miller). 

Anionwu was Great Britain’s first sickle cell nurse specialist. When she gave birth to her daughter, Azuka, with the help of supportive family, friends and employers.  She continued working while raising her daughter alone after her relationship with the father broke down. 

Anionwu dedicated most of her nursing career to working “with black and minority ethnic communities in London” because “People from diverse cultures are not always valued and still sometimes just seen as problems” (Anionwu).   

In 1988, Anionwu was awarded a Ph.D. from University College London (UCL). She then worked as an academic at the Institute of Child Health, UCL for seven years. Her research and publications on the topic of sickle cell anaemia have significantly increased public awareness and research funding.  

Anionwu was appointed as Dean of the School of Adult Nursing and Professor of Nursing at the University of West London in 1997. The following year, she established the Mary Seacole Centre, named after a British-Jamaican nurse who was in foster care and fought racial discrimination to care for sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean war. The Centre was established to address racial inequality in the nursing profession. 

Anionwu led the Mary Seacole Centre until her retirement in 2007. She was later awarded with an Emeritus Professorship of Nursing.  

Anionwu has received many other accolades for her work. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2001 and a Damehood in 2017. In 2018 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Journal of Nursing. Anionwu has also been awarded a Fellow of the Queen’s Nursing Institute (2017), a Lifetime Achievement Award from The British Journal of Nursing (2018), and a Pride of Britain Lifetime Achievement Award (2019). In 2022 she was admitted to the Order of Merit 

One of Anionwu’s most significant accomplishments was her role in campaigning for a statue of Mary Seacole at St Thomas hospital. The statue, first unveiled in June 2016, is the result of twelve years of fundraising and challenging opposition campaigns. The statue represents the first named memorial of a Black Woman in the UK. 

Anionwu’s activism addresses systemic barriers to health career progression among people from racial and ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom. Her autobiography, “Mixed Blessings from a Cambridge Union,” describes how growing up as a black child in white Britain motivated her to create change. First coming out as a self-published book in 2016, it was then published in 2021 by a mainstream publisher under the title, “Dreams From My Mother”. 

I find my book has really encouraged a lot of nurses. I also give a lot of talks about working as a nurse and the feedback I often get is people can’t believe I’ve had all these issues. If I can cope with them, it gives other people motivation and optimism about continuing their nursing career. (Miller) 



“About Me.” Elizabeth Nneka Anionwu website. 

Hackett, Kimberley. “From school nurse assistant to inspirational educator.” Primary Health Care, vol. 28, no.3 (2014):10. 

Miller, Frederica. “A black girl raised in a white world’ The extraordinary journey of a west London health activist who began her life in a care home.” My London, 10 Nov 2018. 

Mistlin, Alex. Elizabeth Anionwu: the ‘cool, black and exceptional’ woman who fought to make the NHS fairer.” The Guardian, 10 Dec 2020. 

“Professor Dame Elizabeth Anionwu.” Black Heroes Foundation. 

Image available here.