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Doctors D’Arbela and Owor, our unsung heroes turn ninety

Doctors D’Arbela and Owor, our unsung heroes turn ninety

Photo: Mulago Hospital and Makerere Medical School campus as it was when Dr. Paul G. M. D’Arbela and Dr. Raphael Owor were new graduates. (Unknown photographer) 



 Uganda has a very long list of distinguished and honourable men and women in the true sense of the term. Whereas they have conducted themselves with great honor and have had an outstanding impact on our country’s journey, you do not hear much about them. Today, we celebrate two of them - Dr. Paul George Musoke D’Arbela and Dr. Raphael Owor - men who, by right, enjoy very high esteem in the international medical community.  


D'Arbela celebrated his ninetieth birthday on July 4. Owor turned ninety on July 7. They have embarked on a decade that very few people anywhere in the world get to. They do so with extraordinary testimonies of resilience, unblemished public service, and disciplined living.  


 Their personal stories are very inspiring. Neither one is a son of a wealthy person. They did not enjoy favoured passage through school because of family, political or tribal connections. They share a common trait with most of their successful peers, and most of my generation, namely, hard work and sacrifice, with no shortcuts.


Paul Darbela, son of Gregory Colomano D’Arbela and Margaret Nassuuna, was born in Kyaggwe, Buganda Kingdom. I do not know his date of birth. A few online publications report that he was born on January 1, 1937. The New Vision of September 19, 2012, reported that he was 73 years old at the time. His academic journey, in which he started secondary school at St. Mary’s College, Kisubi in 1951, after skipping one year of primary school, suggests that he was probably born around 1937. However, whether he is now 87 or 90, we are thankful to the Lord who has given him a long life in good health. 


The young D’Arbela faced a frightful hardship at a very tender age. With the onset of the Second World War, his Italian father was shipped off to South Africa, where he was interned until 1953. His mother, a Muganda, who was an auxiliary nurse at Jinja Hospital, was left to care for her son and two daughters without the physical presence of her husband. 


With the support of Mother Kevin (Teresa Kearney) of the Franciscan Sisters from the age of 3 years, D’Arbela was able to receive an excellent primary and secondary education. He graduated from St. Mary’s College, Kisubi in 1955 and joined Makerere Medical School in 1956.


Following graduation and completion of his internship at Mulago, he took up a job as a research fellow in cardiomyopathies (diseases of heart muscles) in 1962. A distinguished career in heart disorders began. He specialised in internal medicine, became a Member of the Royal College of Physicians of England in 1967, and was appointed a lecturer in medicine at Makerere Medical School. 


D'Arbela became head of the department of medicine in 1973 and excelled in the footsteps of distinguished predecessors like A.W. Williams, A.G Shaper, K. Somers, and J.W. Kibukamusoke. He was elected Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in 1974.   


He taught his students excellent skills in clinical medicine and cardiology (diseases of the heart) at a time when diagnostic tools like ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and computed axial tomography (CAT) scan were in the distant future. Like his colleagues in other departments of the medical school, his teaching rounds nourished his students’ insatiable appetite for knowledge and made a lifelong positive impression on them. 


D’Arbela left Makerere in 1978 under unhappy circumstances. He told a New Vision journalist in 2012: “I resigned from Makerere Medical School where I was a senior lecturer in 1978 because of some controversies in the leadership at the university. I moved to Rubaga Hospital and did consultancy work. In 1980 I got some space in Uganda House and started a private practice there. Around the (1980) election time, my receptionist placed a sign on our window saying: ‘vote DP.’ We were thrown out of the building.”


Notwithstanding the physical threat against senior medical doctors, some of whom were murdered in cold blood by people in military uniforms, D'Arbela soldiered on. However, soon it was his turn. He narrowly escaped death when armed soldiers visited his clinic.  


“In 1982, I planned a sabbatical in the UK,” D’Arbela told New Vision. “When I was due to go, military men came to my office, but luckily, I was in the basement and my head nurse warned me to get out quickly. I left with $6,000 for studies at my alma mater, Royal Post Graduate Medical School and Hammersmith Hospital. I left my wife and six children behind and only after I got a job did I arrange for them to join me in 1983.” So, Uganda had, once again, forced one of her best to flee the country and take his talents elsewhere. 


He returned to Uganda twenty-four years later. Since 2006, D’Arbela has provided state-of-the-art cardiology service, and he has helped establish a post-graduate medical school at Nsambya Hospital in Kampala. 


Map: Mulago Hospital and Makerere Medical School campus circa 1962 (From They Built For The Future: A Chronicle of Makerere University College 1922-1962, by Margaret MacPherson; Cambridge At The University Press, 1964.)


Raphael Owor, son of Tadeo and Magadalena Omiel, was born in Nagongera, Tororo District, on July 7, 1934. After graduating from high school at St. Peter’s College, Tororo, he joined Makerere University Medical School in Kampala, and completed his training as a doctor in 1962. Like D'Arbela, the young Dr. Owor was among the pioneer African doctors that worked at the New Mulago Hospital, a brainchild of Sir Andrew Cohen, Governor of Uganda (1952-1957) which was officially opened by HRH the Duchess of Kent on Tuesday, October 16, 1962.


Following a successful internship, Dr. Owor pursued specialist education and obtained a Doctor of Medicine in human pathology (science of causes and effects of disease)  in 1968. He also qualified as a Member of the Royal College of Pathologists of the United Kingdom in the same year.  


Owor became head of the Department of Pathology at Makerere Medical School in 1973, and easily followed in the footsteps of famous predecessors including JNP Davies and MSR Hutt. He taught human pathology with great clarity that made that complex subject very accessible to novices.


Together with his colleagues in the departments of human anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and pharmacology, Owor laid a firm foundation upon which all the clinical disciplines were built. He went on to become dean of the medical school and a role model in medical research, teaching, administration and policy formulation.  He continued to serve Uganda well into his eighties. 


In honouring D’Arbela and Owor, we bask under their bright shining lights, thankful to the Lord who blessed us with their presence in our lives, and the priceless opportunities to receive excellent foundational education from them and their colleagues. Ugandan doctors who learnt under their guidance stand on giant shoulders that have enabled very many to pursue successful careers at home and abroad.  


Like many of their peers, D’Arbela and Owor are unsung heroes that have had a deeply transformative impact on our country, without demanding praise and honour. Their intellectual labour has sprouted multiple seedlings that have nourished medical science and practice in every continent. Their professional offspring carry memories of the two men’s excellent teaching. They enjoy universal esteem among the thousands of students that they have educated over the last sixty years. 


We adore them because they have earned their honour through unwavering industry, uncompromising professionalism, and unrivalled excellence as educators, researchers, administrators, and leaders of generations of medical doctors. May the Lord continue to bless them. 


© Muniini K. Mulera






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