Childhood & Early Life
Bennet Omalu was born on 30 September, 1968 in South Eastern Nigeria when the country was ravaged by civil war. His father was a mining engineer while his mother worked as a seamstress. Omalu has five older siblings, and one sibling younger to him.
The civil war in Nigeria compelled his family to be on the run, returning to their home 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, Bennet received his MBBS degree after which he did an internship. He served as a physician in Jos, a city in Nigeria’s Middle Belt for three years.
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Academic & Professional Career
Moshood Abiola’s failure to win the presidency in a rigged election in 1993 disillusioned him, following which he started scouting for scholarships to study in the US.
Bennet Omalu immigrated to the U.S. in 1994 and arrived at Seattle for completing a fellowship in epidemiology from the University of Washington.
In 1995, he shifted to New York City to take up a residency program in anatomical and clinical pathology in Harlem Hospital Center under the aegis of Columbia University.
After he completed the residency program, 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.
Groundbreaking Research on CTE
Bennet 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, Bennet 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.
Omalu was very eager to scan Mike’s brain as the latter had behaved distressingly prior to his death. Although Omalu could not detect anything abnormal in Weber’s brain during the autopsy, he persisted with his research. He reviewed stained tissue samples with his own money to confirm his suspicion that Mike had ‘dementia pugilistica’.
Omalu found tau protein clusters in Weber’s brain that had the potential of impairing an individual’s cognitive function and motor skills. He became the first forensic pathologist to discover CTE in an American footballer—a neurological affliction which had earlier been discovered in athletes and boxers.
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Bennet reestablished his findings on CTE, following discussions with University of Pittsburgh’s senior faculty members, and presented a paper, ‘Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player’ in 2005 to a medical periodical ‘Neurosurgery’ for publication. In the paper, he also laid emphasis on carrying out advanced and extensive research on the condition.
Contrary to Omalu’s expectations, his paper was disregarded by the MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injury) Committee set up by National Football League (NFL), demanding its withdrawal. However, he was unfazed by MTBI’s judgment and went on to establish the ‘Brain Injury Research Institute’ in partnership with neurosurgeon and concussion specialist Julian Bailes.
The Brain Injury Research Institute was set up to carry out researches and studies on brain and its myriad complications and was also intended to serve as a tissue and brain bank.
In 2006, Omalu repeated his research on Terry Long, another renowned NFL player, who killed himself at the age of 45 after suffering from depression for years. He discovered that the concentration of tau proteins in Terry’s brain were abnormally high, similar to that of an octogenarian suffering from acute Alzheimer’s.
After examining Terry Long’s brain meticulously, he concluded that the NFL star’s depression and brain damage resulted from enduring multiple concussions throughout his career. He submitted a second dissertation about his findings to Neurosurgery for publishing in November of 2006.
He also scanned brains of some retired NFL players, including Tom McHale and Andre Waters and again came to the conclusion that the football players were plagued with CTE.
The joint findings of Bennet Omalu and Julian Bailes were submitted by the latter to NFL in middle of 2007 when the body was holding a concussion seminar chaired by Ira Casson, chairman of MTBI. Ira turned down the report on the ground that their findings were insufficient to pinpoint CTE in NFL players.
Family of Mike Webster received a hefty settlement in 2006, thereby vindicating Omalu’s stand, NLF’s insouciance and evasiveness notwithstanding. Eventually, Omalu shifted to California towards the end of 2007, to take up a new job as San Joaquin County’s chief medical examiner, and simultaneously carried on with postgraduate studies at Carnegie Mellon University.
In 2008, he received a MBA from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and a few months later, his debut book, ‘Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death’ was published. He continued with his CTE work, this time focusing his research on professionals excelling in other sporting fields and military veterans.
He yet again, discerned traces of chronic encephalopathy in a war veteran aged 27 years who had served in the Iraq war and subsequently committed suicide after diagnosed with PTSD. His findings were published in the form of an article in November of 2011, where he dwelt upon CTE’s correlation with PTSD.