Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu (1968- )

Dr. Bennet Omalu, 2015
Courtesy Wilkinrm1 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu is a Nigerian-American doctor who is best known for discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain injury affecting former National Football League players, among others. Omalu’s discovery and the reaction to it prompted the 2015 film Concussion starringt the actor Will Smith.

Bennet Omalu was born September 1968 in Nnokwa, Nigeria, the sixth of seven children to Oba and Iyom Omalu. Omalu was born during the Nigerian Civil War and the strife caused his family to flee their home but they returned in 1970.

At the age of twelve, Omalu enrolled in the Federal Government College in Enugu, and at the age of sixteen, he enrolled in the medical school at the University of Nigeria. After graduating in 1990 at the age of twenty-two, he completed a clinical internship, followed by three years of service work doctoring in a rural mountain village.

In 1994 Omalu realized a lifelong dream to live in the United States when he came to Seattle, Washington, to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington. He found out he was most passionate about pathology when he began a residency through Columbia University and Harlem Hospital Center in New York. Once he completed his residency, he trained as a forensic pathologist at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, starting in 1999. While there, he became especially interested in neuropathology and completed a fellowship in it in 2002. He earned a Master’s in Public Health and Epidemiology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2004.

Omalu examined the body of Mike Webster, a former professional football player with the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, in September 2002 while he was working at the coroner’s office. Omalu was interested in the clues Webster’s brain contained because the former player had displayed patterns of distressing behavior before his death. Webster’s brain looked normal at autopsy, but Omalu pursued the matter further and conducted independent and self-financed sophisticated tissue analyses of it. Omalu eventually identified microscopic findings in Webster’s brain that led to the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). He submitted a paper titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player” to the medical journal Neurosurgery and in July 2005, it was published. This paper attracted the attention of the NFL which demanded a retraction. Omalu instead continued his research, and over the next six years, he found evidence of CTE in retired NFL players Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and Tom McHale.

Omalu moved to California in 2007 and took the position as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. That year, he published his first book, Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death. He also advanced the study of CTE by branching out to athletes from other sports and war veterans.

Bennett Omalu became a naturalized US citizen in February 2015.  He remains the chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, and is now a professor in the Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, Davis. He lives with his wife Prema Mutiso, a native of Kenya, and two children, Ashly and Mark, in Lodi, California.