Medical Center Archives Acquires Onyekwere E. Akwari Papers

Akwari wearing scrubs

This blog post was contributed by Archives Intern McKenzie Long

The Duke University Medical Center Archives (DUMCA) is excited to announce the acquisition of the Onyekwere E. Akwari Papers, a collection that documents the personal life and professional career of Dr. Onyekwere E. Akwari, a Nigerian-American and the first African-American surgeon at Duke University.

Dr. Akwari was the son of Theophilus Akwari, an export-import business owner, and Ngarasi Christiana Ukegbu, the owner and operator of numerous local shops. He was raised in Abia State, Nigeria as the oldest of eight children. In 1962, shortly after Nigeria declared its independence from British rule, Akwari made the decision to leave his home country and travel to the United States for university. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in 1966. He later went on to study at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where he served as president of the student body before his graduation in 1970.

While he was attending medical school, Akwari’s family’s businesses were looted and the roof of their home destroyed by fire in Nigeria’s civil war. Akwari’s first-surgical attending at the Mayo Clinic, Dr. Martin Adson, volunteered to fund the roof repair. Akwari gratefully accepted this help. During his residency he repaid Adson, who became a lifelong friend. Then, consistent with the responsibility then given and assumed by Igbo first-born males, Akwari achieved acceptance to U.S. universities and underwrote the educations for six of his seven siblings, the youngest arriving in the U.S. as he began his Duke career. Akwari is remembered for his surgical skill, his kindness, and his profound capacity to “see” others and to create long-lasting, supportive relationships.

Akwari joined the general surgery training program at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, where he focused on the neural and hormonal regulation of gastrointestinal motility. While at the Mayo Clinic, Akwari also implemented an Emergency Medicine Residency Program at the Martin Luther King/Drew Medical Center for the Southeast Health Region of Los Angeles County. Akwari’s early success prompted Dr. David C. Sabiston, Jr. to recruit him to Duke University as an Associate Professor of Surgery. At the time, Duke University Medical Center only had two other African-American professors on faculty, and Akwari was only the second on the academic tenure track.  Akwari during his Chief Ceremony in Amaokwe Item, Abia State, Nigeria

 Akwari during his Chief Ceremony in Amaokwe Item, Abia State, NigeriaAkwari soon became a significant figure at Duke and in the wider medical community. He served on Duke’s medical school admissions committee, Duke’s faculty governance Academic Council, and Duke’s Athletic Council. A strong advocate for expanding and celebrating diversity at the university, Akwari supported the introduction of Duke’s women’s and minority studies programs and hosted gatherings for fellow “first” African Americans at Duke. Among Akwari’s most significant accomplishments was the foundation of the Society of Black Academic Surgeons (SBAS). SBAS was organized by Akwari and three other African-American surgeons in 1989 to support the racial integration of academic surgical departments in the post-civil rights era.

The Onyekwere E. Akwari Papers extensively documents both Akwari’s professional career and his personal life. Many of the materials contained in this collection relate to Akwari’s community and family life in Abia State, Nigeria, including regalia, photographs of major events such as weddings and funerals, records of property held by Akwari’s family, business requests, and collected funeral programs for friends and family members. Other materials record Akwari’s immigration and life after moving to the United States. Among these materials are travel documents, correspondence, family papers, event programs and correspondence, photographs, and various records related to Akwari’s membership at St. Titus Episcopal Church.

Unprocessed Akwari boxesA significant portion of the Onyekwere E. Akwari Papers also pertains directly to Akwari’s medical and educational career. This includes publications, board materials, subject files, surgical slides, personnel and student files, correspondence, assorted uniforms and university regalia, records for Duke Athletics, and images and recordings for university events. This also includes records connected to the foundation and maintenance of the SBAS, such as photographs, event and workshop programs, meeting transcripts, correspondence, and video recordings. 

This collection should be of note to researchers interested in studying the development of surgical medicine and diversity efforts at Duke University, as well as the larger history of African-Americans in the United States medical field. This collection should also be of note to researchers interested in both studies of Nigeria and the African immigrant experience in the United States in the twentieth century.

Further announcement will be made when this collection is processed and open to researchers. To learn more about these materials, contact the archives staff.