Skip to main content

Black History Month: Celebrating Thomas Adesanya Ige Grillo (1927-1998) and Dorothea Lillian Baxter-Grillo (1931-2020)

For #blackhistorymonth, we're shining a spotlight on the legacy of two pioneers in global healthcare education - husband and wife couple, Thomas Adesanya Ige Grillo (1927-1998) and Dorothea Lillian Baxter-Grillo (1931-2020). 

Both studied at RCSI and graduated together in the Class of 1955, both became renowned anatomists, and both went on to play a transformative role in the development of healthcare education in Nigeria and other developing countries from the 1960s. Together, they taught three generations of healthcare professionals and between them trained most anatomy teachers active in Nigeria today. 

'To this day, Professor Baxter-Grillo and Professor Adesanya Ige Grillo are legendary names in the field of anatomy in Nigeria. Indeed, I believe any medical doctor who read medicine in Nigeria, and says he/she hasn't heard the name "Grillo" ought to be investigated.'

Friday Okonofua, Vice Chancellor of Ondo State University of Medical Sciences and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology

Thomas Adesanya Ige Grillo (Credit: Obafemi Awolowo University) and Dorothea Lillian Baxter Grillo (Credit unknown)

Academic Beginnings at RCSI

Thomas Adesanya Ige Grillo was born in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1927. Dorothea Lillian Baxter was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1931. The pair met while studying medicine at RCSI in Dublin, where both showed a particular aptitude for anatomy. Grillo was appointed a Student Demonstrator in the Department of Anatomy in 1953 and took second place in the Systemic Anatomy competition that year (coming second only to one MB Levine who won no fewer than 3 gold medals during the 1953/54 academic session and was appointed a lecturer in the Department of Anatomy immediately after graduating; known for sporting a distinctive waxed handlebar moustache, Sir Montague Bernard Levine was later dubbed as 'Britain's Most Colourful Coroner' by The Telegraph thanks to his penchant for 'psychedelic' waistcoats and vintage Jaguars.)

Grillo and Baxter graduated from RCSI in the Class of 1955 and married later the same year. Baxter became Baxter-Grillo, and went on to specialise in paediatrics, undertaking a postgraduate Diploma in Child Health at RCSI in 1959. Grillo, meanwhile, studied and taught in St John's College Cambridge while earning his PhD. In 1960, the couple moved to California for a year where Grillo took up the post of Assistant Professor in Anatomy at Stanford University. 

Pioneers in Nigerian Healthcare Education and Research

The pair relocated to Nigeria in 1961. Grillo took up the position of lecturer in the University of Ibadan, moving quickly through the ranks there to become Head of Department and the first Professor of Anatomy in Nigeria in 1966. In 1972, Grillo moved to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU)) as Foundation Dean of the College of Health Sciences. As Professor of Medicine at OAU (1972-1987), Grillo championed the principles of respect and collegiality across the healthcare professions, and encouraged his students to think 'holistically out of the box'*. In support of this ethos, he established an innovative interdisciplinary healthcare education curriculum in which medical and dental students were required to undertake their basic training modules alongside students in the allied healthcare professions. 

Grillo-Baxter decided to further her education on moving to Nigeria, becoming the first person to be awarded a PhD in anatomy in Nigeria. Specialising in embryology, Grillo-Baxter held professorial and faculty appointments in Jamaica and at the Universities of Ibadan, OAU, Maiduguri, and Benin in Nigeria.

The couple shared similar research interests, both publishing on - among other subjects - embryogenesis, pathology, and histochemistry (the latter while working together in the Department of Anatomy at Ibadan). Conducted within Nigerian universities, this high class research work proved that world class biomedical research was feasible in developing countries in the 1960s and 1970s. 

Grillo, in particular, was in great demand by institutions in developing countries who sought his guidance, and in 1988 he was asked to establish a new College of Medicine and Healthcare Sciences at the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown. As a consultant to the World Health Organisation, Grillo also advised institutions on matters of healthcare education in Liberia, Sudan, and Malawi. Grillo returned to RCSI as Visiting Professor in the Department of Anatomy in 1995. He died in 1998. Baxter-Grillo continued to teach anatomy at the University of Benin following her husband's passing. She retired in 2019 at the age of 88, and died just over a year later in 2020.

* Galogun, Joseph A., Healthcare Education in Nigeria: Evolutions and Emerging Paradigms (New York, 2020), pp.138-139