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Bennet Omalu: Brain Behind Answer To Brain Concussion



When Hollywood decides to act a movie based on any individual’s life, that person must be very important in the world and must have answered one question that the world struggled with until the person’s intervention. That was the case with Nigerian-American physician, forensic pathologist and neuropathologist, Bernet Omalu.

His name has gone down in history as the first to publish findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, changing the face of sports medicine as the world knows it. His theory highlighted concussions that occur with American footballer when they play their game.

Omalu was born on September 30, 1968 in Southeastern Nigeria to a father who was a mining engineer and a mother who worked as a seamstress. He has five older siblings, and one younger sibling.

The civil war in Nigeria compelled his family to run from his hometown when he was just a baby only to return when he was two years old.

He started attending primary school when he was only three and got admitted at the Enugu Federal Government College for his secondary education. He became eligible for the University of Nigeria’s medical school when he was just 16 years old. In June 1990, he received his MBBS degree after which he did his national youth services before serving as a physician in Jos for three years.

From 1993, he started scouting for scholarships to study in the United States. He got the chance the next year and migrated to the United States. He went to Seattle in 1994 where he was accepted to complete a fellowship in epidemiology from the University of Washington.

In 1995, he moved to New York City to take up a residency programme in anatomical and clinical pathology in Harlem Hospital Centre under the aegis of Columbia University.

After he completed the residency programme, he interned under Cyril Wecht, a celebrated forensic expert, at the Coroner’s office in Allegheny County, Pittsburgh to gain experience in forensic pathology. His profound interest in neuropathology helped him to earn a total of eight degrees in neuropathology and pathology as well as board certifications and fellowships.

The University of Pittsburgh granted him a fellowship in pathology in 2000, followed by another in neuropathology in 2002. He received a MPH (Master of Public Health) in 2004 in epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and the Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business awarded him a MBA in 2008.

Omalu’s revolutionary and unprecedented exploration of CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy started in 2002 with the autopsy of Mike Webster, a Pittsburgh Steelers player, and a ‘Pro Football Hall of Fame’ member. CTE was a neurological facet linked with persistent head trauma which was previously detected in boxers who suffered concussions resulting from heavy blows.

By conducting postmortem examination on Weber who had battled depression, extreme mood swings, drug abuse, cognitive debilitation, and died unpredictably following numerous suicide attempts, Omalu had turned the spotlight back on CTE. There was a lot of controversy around CTE as medical professionals were divided on the cogency of this neurologic condition.

The media started taking note of Omalu’s work from 2009, nearly seven years after he began his research on CTE. Jeanne Marie Laskas, a journalist, wrote a report about his endeavors to popularise CTE while braving stiff resistance from NFL that was published in an issue of the GQ magazine.

The article on CTE by Jeannie Marie also garnered huge publicity and media attention, ultimately leading to the filing of a lawsuit by countless retired NFL players against the league body in 2009. The US House Committee on the judiciary summoned NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, and other league executives to bear witness.

Following the NFL Commissioner’s testifying before the US House Judiciary Committee, the MTBI was constituted afresh and the committee’s rules and regulations were reframed in order to incorporate Omalu’s safety recommendations to prevent CTE incidences. Jeannie Laskas, later on wrote a book named ‘Concussion’ based on his original article.

Jeannie Marie’s tome ‘Concussion’ was published by Penguin Random House in 2015 and became the basis for a movie having the identical name. The renowned Hollywood actor, Will Smith portrayed the protagonist, Omalu in the film.