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First African American surgeon on faculty at Duke remembered for his kindness and leadership

<p>Courtesy of Duke Surgery</p>

Courtesy of Duke Surgery

Onyekwere (Onye) E. Akwari, the first African American faculty member in the Duke department of surgery, died April 14 at the age of 76.

Recruited to Duke close to a decade after the hospital had desegregated, Akwari became the second African American faculty member on tenure track at the School of Medicine. His work inspired many, as he formed close relationships with his students and lab researchers and had more than 150 published papers and book chapters.

Allan Kirk, David C. Sabiston, Jr. professor and chair of the department of surgery, wrote in an email about how Akwari was “a pioneer in many regards.” Kirk detailed that he will “sorely miss” him and described how he studied with Akwari when he was a medical student and surgery resident in the School of Medicine.

“In addition to his professional achievements, Onye was one of the kindest gentlemen one could ever meet,” Kirk wrote. “He was always willing to help students, colleagues, and especially patients, regardless of the time of day or day of week.”

Born in Aba, Nigeria, Akwari was the oldest of the eight children in his family. His father owned an export-import business and his mother worked as a shopkeeper.

Nigeria’s civil war, which endured from 1967 to 1970, significantly affected the Akwari family. The family house and business were demolished because of the war. 

Martin Adson, a surgeon and mentor to Akwari, loaned money to place a new roof on his family’s house. Akwari—working as a trainee in America at the time—repaid the loan and supported six of his siblings in pursuing their education in the United States.

After immigrating to the United States in 1962, Akwari graduated from the University of Washington in 1966. There, he was a varsity track and field athlete and soccer player while playing an active role in the student government. Akwari also won the Honorary Citizen of the City award for his work in the Seattle community.

He subsequently studied medicine at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and served as the student body president. After graduation, he entered the general surgery training program and pursued research interests at the Mayo Clinic. 

Akwari was recruited in 1978 as an associate professor to Duke by David C. Sabiston Jr., James B. Duke professor and then-chair of the department of surgery.

At the time Akwari joined as a tenure-track professor, there were only two other African American professors on faculty at the entire School of Medicine.

“In addition to leading the integration of the surgical faculty at Duke, he formed the first national organization dedicated to black academic surgeons (the Society for Black Academic Surgeons), which has grown into the most important national advocacy and support organization for under-represented minorities in surgery,” Kirk wrote. “Through his efforts, thousands of people have been given an aspirational roadmap to a career in academic surgery.”

In October 1987, Akwari, Arthur Fleming, Claude Organ, Eddie Hoover and Steve Aichele met in New Orleans to discuss African American surgeons in academic surgery. 

This inaugural meeting led to the founding of The Society of Black Academic Surgeons (SBAS).

“It was abundantly clear that few blacks were involved in academic surgery, there was no organized network of African-American academic surgeons, few young surgeons [pursuing] academic careers received tenure, and graduates from surgery residency programs other than Meharry or Howard could not easily identify African-American surgeons role models to inspire them to pursue academic careers,” the SBAS website reads.

The first official meeting of SBAS was at the Duke University Medical Center and Washington Duke Inn in 1989. 

Organized to “assemble as many African-American surgeons as possible to discuss the essentials of building academic careers,” Akwari was the local arrangements chairman and Sabiston, who recruited Akwari to Duke, was the host.

“The meeting organizers were proud to acknowledge that every prominent individual asked to attend this seminar agreed to participate without hesitation,” the SBAS website reads. “The meeting included seminars on funding academic productivity and promotion.”

At the third SBAS meeting in 1993, Akwari—the outgoing SBAS president at the time—was awarded the official SBAS medal for his “distinguished service” to the Society.

Before an illness in 1995, Akwari spent 17 years as an active faculty member at the School of Medicine. His laboratory research focused on gastrointestinal motility, and he provided mentorship for pre-medical and medical students, physician assistants and trainees.

Akwari also held national positions in surgery, such as chair of the surgical section and executive committee member of the National Medical Association. 

At Duke, Akwari was a member of many committees, such as the curriculum committee of the School of Medicine. He spent 15 years on the School of Medicine admissions committee and 12 years on the University’s Academic Council.

“He felt privileged that during his tenure on Duke’s Academic Council (1981-1993), the faculty voted to broaden Duke’s faculty tuition benefit program to include the children of staff, a signal commitment of the university to the academic mission of generational improvement,” his obituary reads.

As a member of Duke’s athletic council, he knew the coaches of women’s and men’s basketball, football and wrestling and was very involved with athletes interested in medicine.

“He was keenly interested in facilitating the studies of Division I athletes who aspired to medical careers,” the obituary reads. “He opened his home to all, most importantly to students, and he hosted gatherings for other ‘first’ African Americans at Duke.”

In 1987, Akwari won the Golden Apple Award for his teaching and leadership and received the University Scholar/Teacher of the Year award from the University.

On February 19, 2019, the Samuel DuBois Cook Society presented the Raymond Gavins Distinguished Faculty Award to Akwari at its annual dinner. The Society’s mission is “to recognize, celebrate, and affirm the presence of African-American students, faculty, and staff at Duke University.” Akwari was a founding member of the society.

He is survived by his wife Anne Micheaux Akwari, assistant consulting professor of community and family medicine at the School of Medicine, two children, three grandchildren and six siblings.

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