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Adetokunbo O. Lucas

Professor Adetokunbo O. Lucas, one of the world’s leading tropical disease experts of his generation, passed away peacefully on Christmas day at his home in Ibadan, Nigeria. Born in Nigeria on November 25, 1931, into a distinguished academic and religious leadership family, he was educated in medicine in Nigeria and the UK, and had many connections to Harvard. Professor Lucas became known for scientific contributions achieved through his own research activities and for his extraordinary capacity to guide the research, thinking, and actions of others in countless international organizations and efforts. His scientific eminence resulted from his wide-ranging knowledge and insightful intellect, but also from his unimpeachable moral integrity, his deep source of wisdom on public health, and his capacity to communicate effectively across cultural boundaries. He was deeply committed to advancing health in the poor countries of the world, and made many important contributions to global health.

His ties to Harvard began with a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in the early 1960s: In 1963, he was elected Class President for his class at Harvard School of Public Health (which later became Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health). In 1964, he received his Master of Science (S.M. Hyg.) from HSPH. In 1983, he gave the commencement address at HSPH (“From the Beginning to the End”). In 1986, he received one of 20 Harvard Medals (on the 350th Anniversary of Harvard University) with the statement, “Harvard salutes this champion of Public Health for his lifelong commitment to limiting tropical disease and combating ignorance in all people.” From 1987-1990, he was a leading member of the (Evans’) Commission on Health Research for Development. From 1990-1995, Prof. Lucas was Professor of International Health at the HSPH, and he continued as Adjunct Professor of International Health at HSPH from 1995 until his death.

In 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded HSPH with a grant to support the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria (APIN). Professor Lucas chaired the Advisory Council for the grant from 2000-2006. When the Harvard President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant transitioned their Nigeria program to the independent APIN LLC, Professor Lucas provided critical leadership to this budding non-governmental organization, serving on their board till 2019. Today, APIN Public Health Initiative is a leading stakeholder in public health in the country and one of Professor Lucas’ many legacies.

Professor Lucas played a core leadership role in many international health organizations during the latter half of the twentieth century. These include the following:

  • Medical Research Council of Nigeria, First Chairman of the Council, 1973-1975.
  • Director of the UNDP/World Bank/WHO Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (known as TDR), 1976-1986.
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York, Program Chair of Strengthening Human Resources in Developing Countries, 1986-1990.
  • Mectizan Donation Program, Member of the Expert Committee (for treatment of onchocerciasis in endemic countries), 1988-1992.
  • Global Forum on Health Research (Chairman of the Foundation Council that established the organization and set the parameters for its functions), 1997-2001.
  • International Trachoma Initiative, Member of the Technical Expert Committee (for treatment of trachoma), 1999-2006.

He received many honorary degrees, academic awards, and recognition from professional organizations around the world, including: the first Ademola Award for his contributions to tropical disease research;  Honorary Fellow of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which also established a lecture room in his honor; the Mary Kingsley Medal of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, the Harvard School of Public Health Alumni Award of Merit, the Prince Mahidol Award for his global contributions to tropical disease research, and the Thai Grand Cross First Class for his good deeds in Thailand.

In 2010, Prof. Lucas wrote an autobiography: “It Was the Best of Times: From Local to Global Health.” He gives his perspective on the emergence of global health, as a participant on this change. In the book’s conclusion, he wrote: “Now sitting in the departure lounge of life, ready to board when my flight is called, the overwhelming feeling is one of contentment…so far so good, sometimes very good!”

Professor Lucas was a rare individual whose professional life in public health informed knowledge and action leading to direct improvements in human well-being throughout the world, especially for those populations most disadvantaged in Africa. “His unfailing good humor, sense of perspective, and wisdom gave him a remarkable combination of altruism, pragmatism and idealism,” said Harvey Fineberg, former dean of the faculty at HSPH. The world and Harvard have lost a remarkable humanitarian in global health, and a great friend and mentor for many.