Africa: Ndili, Africa’s First Professor of Nuclear Physics, Bows Out

The passing of Professor Frank Nwachukwu Ndili, Nigeria’s first Nuclear Physicist and Africa’s first Professor in the field, is a moment of both sorrow and gratitude. His life was one of glory, excellence, and exemplary achievements. As a beloved husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and patriarch, he left an indelible mark on those who knew him.

The University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), where Professor Ndili served as Vice-Chancellor, stands as a testament to his visionary leadership and unwavering commitment to education. During his tenure, the university witnessed remarkable growth, academic excellence, and community impact.

Colleagues, students, and alumni remember him as a beacon of integrity, humility, and intellectual rigor. His legacy echoes through the corridors of the institution where he championed research, innovation, and the pursuit of knowledge.

In the hallowed halls of academia, we honor Professor Ndili’s legacy–a legacy that transcends mere titles and positions. His name is etched in the hearts of those who walked alongside him, imbibing wisdom from his lectures, conversations, and quiet moments of reflection.

To those who came in close contact with the late intellectual power house, compassion, empathy, selflessness, hard work, diligence, acute sense of duty, indignant insistence on form, rules, practice, procedure, commitment to uplifting the underprivileged, placing the displaced – compelling scenes, act in a fascinating value-adding non-fiction tale which was his life.

Whether in front of the class, chalk and duster in hand, or at the file-cabinet infested room as Head of Department or at the head of the longer table as Dean of Faculty, or when he bestrode his administrative environment like a singular, yet cooperative colossus, turning the campuses into one huge post-civil war reconstruction site, as Vice Chancellor, picking up trash in the foyer of Kwame Nkrumah Hall and thus engendering Students’ commitment to environmental sanitation, Ndili’s life was, like an elixir, stronger than the humility of a leader’s example.

The laboratories echo with memories of his tireless research, his mentorship, and the intellectual camaraderie he fostered. His lectures, delivered with precision and passion, ignited curiosity and fueled scientific inquiry.

In tribute to Professor Ndili, the Institute Of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ PAN) convenes a virtual gathering of minds, hearts, and gratitude. Colleagues share anecdotes, recounting moments when his insights reshaped experiments, when his laughter echoed through the corridors, and when his unwavering commitment to truth fueled their own quests for discovery.

Ndili was born on October 6, 1934 in Asaba, Delta State, Nigeria. He attended St. Patrick’s College Asaba from 1950-1954, studied at the University of Ibadan from 1957-1961 where he graduated with a B.Sc (Hons) First Class in Physics. In 1961, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge, England and graduated in 1964 with a Ph.D in Nuclear and High Energy Particle Physics. He was the first Nigerian to obtain a Ph.D in Nuclear and High Energy Particle Physics. He was a Fellow of the British Institute of Physics (F.Inst.P), London, and won the Alberti Tomasini prize of the Italian Physical Society, Erice, Italy in 1965.

Frank Ndili joined the University of Nigeria in 1971 and became Professor in 1974. His career began as a physics lecturer at the University of Ibadan from 1964-1968. He was a visiting scientist at the International Centre, Trieste, Italy in 1967, a research fellow at Atomic Energy University of Warsaw, Poland from 1967-1968, then Principal Scientific Officer, Daresbury Nuclear Physics Research Warrington, England from 1968-1971. The late Professor was also a senior lecturer for physics at UNN between 1971 and 1973, Head of Department of Physics from 1973-1976 and Dean of the Faculty of Physical Sciences from 1976 to 1980 after which he became the Vice Chancellor. He served out his tenure in 1985. After, he proceeded on leave of absence overseas. In 2005, he returned to UNN and was conferred with the honour of Professor Emeritus of the University of Nigeria in 2016 in recognition of his outstanding contribution to scholarship, and his distinguished service to the University.

He was credited with being one of the most visionary Vice Chancellors of the University. During Professor Ndili’s Vice-Chancellorship, effort was undertaken, for the first time, to rebuild and refurbish the University of Nigeria following its devastation by the Nigerian Civil War. Ndili envisioned that the University would be destined for world-class status and designed a Master Plan to that effect. Today, the grand University entryway, the Nnamdi Azikiwe Library, the School of General Studies, and the Faculty of Arts Complex ss well as the Faculty of Physical Sciences stand as testimony to his grand vision. He was not only a scientist, he was a great teacher, a top administrator, and a positive strategist.