Chris Wood – Renaissance Leader

Renaissance Leaders in the modern knowledge economy are people of action—but not the ready-­fire-aim type of actor who believes that being fast off the mark in implementing the first plan that comes to mind is the key to success.  They are self-aware people who pay attention to who they really are⎯what some might call their “way of being in the world”—without descending into self-absorption or losing touch with reality.

They are high integrity individuals with a passion both for driving high performance in their organizations and for helping to make the world a better place.

These modern day Renaissance Leaders have a sense of history and an unusual capacity for viewing the world holistically, for practicing systems thinking, for injecting a global and a futures perspective into present challenges, for honouring diversity, and for drawing on ideas and best practices from diverse disciplines and economic sectors.

They have a capacity to function as social and technical architects designing new structures, processes, and products for addressing complex challenges.

They have mastered the art of demonstrating grace under pressure, and of inspiring others to have the courage to collaborate and innovate in order to solve complex challenges.

As we remind ourselves of these features, it has become even more evident, to the Innovation Expedition Team, how privileged we have been to work with and to be inspired by some of today’s true Renaissance Leaders. We wish to recognize, with this Bulletin, that we have found such a Renaissance Leader in the person of Dr. Chris Wood of Nairobi, with whom members of our team have been interacting since the late 1960s.

Part of the IE’s goal, with its emerging Renaissance Leadership initiative, is to take the important time to capture the history of these Leaders; these often humble living legends.

Dr. Christopher H. Wood

Dr Christopher Wood is a well-known name in all of East Africa and beyond. His reputation as a community health practitioner is unparalleled. Many of the health personnel in the region developed under his hands in his role as a teacher, mentor, external examiner, and public health consultant.

Dr Chris Wood qualified as a medical doctor at the Middlesex Hospital Medical School, London, in 1947. He obtained a Diploma in Public Health and a Diploma in Industrial Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (1952-53) and an MS in Hygiene (1955-57) at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Chris Wood’s decision to go into public health was influenced when, as a medical student, he spent his vacations working in a coal mine. There, he saw the advantages of preventing accidents and chronic pulmonary diseases underground as opposed to providing casualty services and compensation at ground level.

After his National Service in 1947-49 on internship at the Singapore Teaching Hospital, he spent short-term spells working at a mission hospital in Assam; a private surgical practice in Nairobi, Kenya; and hospitals in Malaya, India, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Nigeria. These encounters with different health systems changed his thinking from surgery to preventive medicine.

On return to the UK, Chris was recruited to start the new Department of Occupational Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where he developed courses in occupational health. He played a prominent role in anti-smoking campaigns, starting the first anti-smoking clinic in England, kicked off by the Royal College of Physicians’ Report on Smoking and Health.

In 1961, he was involved in setting up a fundraising office for AMREF (the African Medical and Research Foundation) in London. In 1963, Chris was invited to Tanganyika by the Government as Public Health Advisor to set up the training program at the Dar es Salaam Medical School, which was established within the Ministry of Health. When the Dar es Salaam Medical School was incorporated into the University of East Africa as a fully fledged Faculty of Medicine under its constituent college in Dar es Salaam, Chris became the founding Professor of Community Health.

In 1973, Chris moved to Nairobi, Kenya to establish the training department of AMREF. Through his emphasis on continuing education for all rural health workers, he established a program to develop and distribute appropriate learning materials, and training of teachers. Training soon became an important component of AMREF’s operations, offering a range of short courses for various levels of the health workforce, and a year-long diploma course in community health. The training department also nurtured a variety of community health activities such as the primary health care program for South Sudan, community health worker support unit, environmental health activities.

In 1985, Chris became AMREF’s Director General. During his tenure, he established two new departments: Health Planning and Management, and Publications. A new strategic plan was developed in cooperation with the East African Ministries of Health and major donors. Chris is a founding member and serves on the Board of Nairobi Hospice. He is a Council Member of the Tropical Institute of Community Health/University of the Great Lakes.

He is also founder and, until recently, Chairman of the Executive Board of AfriAfya (the African Health Network), which is a health knowledge management and communication organization, which brought together eight agencies, including the Kenya Ministry of Health, to collaborate in using information technologies to help empower change agents in marginalized communities to support health improvements.

In another initiative of his retirement, now aged 83, he has developed a “phased training” program for middle-level health workers for the Southern Sudan war zone that has become the backbone for the region’s reconstruction of its health services.

Chris Wood recently has begun an environmental program for saving trees by making cooking fuel out of dry leaves and waste paper in the form of compressed briquettes that can be used in place of charcoal. The manufacturing centre for this breakthrough technology is in the garage of his home in Langatta on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Certainly one of Chris’ greatest challenges in 2008 was his decision, ultimately, to accept the Order of the British Empire (OBE) from Queen Elizabeth II. It was with some angst and after some rather deep soul searching that he decided to accept and travelled to London and Buckingham Palace to receive the honour in recognition of his tireless lifelong commitment to the delivery of health care to marginalized communities. Much of this work has been in Eastern Africa and the Southern Sudan. While Chris may have struggled with whether or not to accept the award, all of his loved ones, friends, and colleagues were overjoyed of this worthy recognition. After the event, true to his rascal nature, we can all imagine him saying — “Well, I am certainly relieved to have that formality behind me!”.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -