Joseph Maina Mungai: Professor Who Founded UoN School Of Medicine, Drove 10 Bodies From Uganda To Be Used By Students

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Joseph Maina Mungai: Professor Who Founded UoN School Of Medicine, Drove 10 Bodies From Uganda To Be Used By Students
Photocredit/Courtesy

By Prudence Minayo

Dr. Joseph Maina Mungai was one of Kenya’s best medical lecturers. He was instrumental in the establishment of University of Nairobi School of Medicine and was awarded the Elder of the Burning Spear and in 2002 received the Moran of the Golden Heart Of Kenya. The late president Daniel arap Moi recognized him for his 40 years teaching profession.

Here is his story as told by WoK.

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Background and Education 

He was born in on 4th April 1932 in Nairobi’s Pumwani Hospital. He went to Mahinga Elementary School, followed by Kahuhu Primary School, and Ngeca Primary School. he dropped out of school from time to time to sell sugarcane in the local market or run his father’s kiosk. In 1942, he dropped out of school to become a herdsboy for two years.

After graduating from Alliance High School, he joined Makerere University College in 1954. The following year, he was recognized as the best student in Biology in the London Intermediate Science Examination. 

In 1956, he joined the Faculty of Medicine at Makerere University College and graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery in 1963. It is at this institution where he won the Swynnerton Prize for Biology through the inspiration of Professor David Wasawo and other lecturers. He also won the British Medical Association Prize for Anatomy followed by BPShell Exhibition Prizes for other subjects.

In 1964, Joseph Maina Mungai got a Master of Medical and Surgery degrees (MB.,  Ch.M). Two years later, he graduated with a Ph.D. in Medicine from the University College of London. 

Career and role in Establishing UoN School of Medicine

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In 1967, he went back to teach at Makerere University College. Shortly afterwards, he was called to start the University of Nairobi School of Medicine. Makerere University refused to let him go and Kenya had to pay off his contract. 

Five months before the first students reported, he became the head of human anatomy at the UoN. The faculty was facing serious problems having limited staff, equipment and teaching materials.

There were also no cadavers to be used during practicals. Unlike Uganda, Kenya had no anatomy bill that would allow the school to acquire cadavers for dissection. In Uganda, the bill allowed Makerere University to collect unclaimed bodies from mortuaries for teaching. Luckily, Makerere University agreed to give Nairobi 10 well treated bodies. 

Ferrying dead bodies 

A month before students were due to report, the head of department at veterinary anatomy offered the use of his land rover to transport the cadavers. He was then faced with the daunting task of journeying to Uganda to get the bodies. No driver wanted a part in this since there was still the risk of prosecution for possessing dead bodies. He had to drive the car himself. 

The professor got letters of authority from the police and the ministries of health in both Uganda and Kenya. He drove to Makerere University with a Ugandan medical student. 

They were arrested at Tororo and taken to Mbale after failing to produce the vehicle’s log book and insurance certificate. They were to appear in court the following day but luckily police changed shifts at midnight. By chance, one of them was a classmate to the Ugandan veterinary student. He listened to them and they were allowed to leave the station.

They arrived at Makerere and after a week all the paperwork was completed, his car was loaded with ten cadavers.

Together with his companion, they embarked on the journey back to Nairobi. At 10pm, they arrived at the border where Kenyan police officers were situated. They asked what he was carrying and he told them it was ten dead bodies. The shocked police officer went to investigate before calling his fellow over.

The second officer asked where he got the bodies and what he was going to do with them. Other police officers joined in to examine the matter. They asked for documentation and his passport and they were allowed to go after an hour. 

He drove the whole night and arrived at the Chiromo campus at 9am. Upon arrival, he asked someone to help them unload the car but when he saw what was inside, he fled. Others also fled refusing to help until a cleaner came to their rescue. 

On 3rd July 1967, the first 30 medical students reported. They were pursuing either a Bachelor of Medicine or a Bachelor of Chemistry. The students studied human anatomy using the cadavers and did not even have their own building, it was still under construction. They studied human anatomy in one corner of the veterinary anatomy garage. 

The first batch of medical students graduated in 1972. 

Dr. Joseph Maina Mungai went on to serve in various roles including as the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Nairobi. He passed away in 2003.

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