The Templeton Prize winner and former first lady is still working to train midwives and eliminate female genital mutilation.

By Emily Bobrow

Edna Adan Ismail is renowned for her work as a nurse-midwife, but at first the job held little appeal. “Poo-poo, pee-pee, breast milk, babies screaming—midwifery was not really my first choice,” she admits. “It wasn’t even on my list of choices.”

As the first Somaliland woman to receive formal nursing training in Britain, in the 1950s, she preferred the drama of surgery. She changed course only after her physician father, who had seen two of his children die due to obstetric mishaps, asked: “But how will you handle all the pregnant women who need your help?”


In her native Somaliland, a self-declared independent state within Somalia’s internationally recognized borders, Ismail, 85, is credited with dramatically improving maternal and infant health. She led the construction of a teaching hospital that bears her name and has helped train over a thousand midwives since 2002.

Templeton Prize Winner Edna Adan Ismail Fights For The Health Of African Women
Edna Adan Ismail photographed at Edna Adan hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland, August 2023. Mustafa Saeed for the Wall Street Journal

A former first lady of Somalia—her first husband, Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, was prime minister in the late 1960s—she later served as the first female cabinet minister in Somaliland, which separated from Somalia in the early 1990s. “I’ve been in so many places and so many difficult positions, but somehow I’m pushing 86, and I can still run up and down stairs,” Ismail says. “God has been very good to me.”

Ismail has also spoken out against female genital mutilation (FGM), as both a clinician and a victim, since the 1970s, when few people were ready to talk about a practice that the United Nations estimates has harmed over 200 million women and girls alive today. This year, she became the first African woman to be awarded the prestigious Templeton Prize, which honors those who use science to probe the grandest questions of the universe. The citation compared Ismail to Mother Teresa, who won the first prize 50 years ago for similarly “helping a community that did not have adequate medical care, thereby achieving a global impact.”

Templeton Prize Winner Edna Adan Ismail Fights For The Health Of African Women
Ismail in the maternity ward at Edna Adan Hospital. PHOTO: Mustafa Saeed for the Wall Street Journal

“Today we have more midwives than we ever dreamed we could have, and we have more women applying than we can accommodate,” says Ismail over video from her office at the Edna Adan University & Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland. Her hope is to train midwives across Africa, which suffers the highest maternal and infant death rates of any continent. “It gives women jobs, alleviates poverty, creates self-reliance, and saves lives,” she says. “It’s very cost-effective.”

Growing up, Ismail sensed she was a disappointment to her mother. Neighbors and relatives would complain about seeing her running barefoot and climbing trees with local boys: “Little Somali girls were supposed to stay inside and learn how to be good wives, but that wasn’t for me,” she says.

Ismail idolized her father, who worked long hours as one of the few doctors in the region. She was 12 when she began helping him at the hospital, taking notes and washing bandages cut from old sheets. On one occasion he scolded her for looking disgusted while he lanced a patient’s infected abscess: “I will never be as compassionate as he was,” she insists. Ismail knew she would follow him into healthcare—“There was never another choice”—and she dreamed of one day building a hospital with the tools and trained staff that he sorely needed.

Templeton Prize Winner Edna Adan Ismail Fights For The Health Of African Women
Ismail (right) as a nursing student in the U.K. in 1959. PHOTO: Dr. Edna Adan Ismail

Girls weren’t allowed to attend the local school, so her father hired a private tutor to teach her and some neighborhood boys at home, then sent her to a French-run school in Djibouti. She was 8 and home for the summer when her mother arranged for her to undergo the agonizing mutilation known as female circumcision while her father was away; her mother and grandmother ululated joyfully that she had been “cleansed.” But her father was appalled by what had happened, which gave her the courage to believe it wasn’t right.

As a nurse-midwife in Somaliland, Ismail saw how the scars of circumcision often led to “horrific complications” during childbirth. Since 1976 she has traveled the world to talk about these problems, enlisting the support of imams to help explain that FGM is not, in fact, mandated by the Quran. She is careful to frame her case in medical terms: “If you talk about gender and sexual rights, people may not listen, but if you talk about pain, blood and endangering the life of an unborn baby, then they may hear you.”

Ismail spent years traveling the eastern Mediterranean region for the World Health Organization, teaching nursing and midwifery. In the late 1980s, she worked with the U.N. to help manage the refugee crisis caused by the civil war in Somalia. When she returned to her hometown of Hargeisa, she found the hospital filled with squatters and her old neighborhood strewn with land mines. Nearly all the midwives had left or been killed. It was time, she thought, to build a new hospital.

Templeton Prize Winner Edna Adan Ismail Fights For The Health Of African Women
‘People thought I was wasting my money and time,’ says Ismail of her quest to build the hospital that now bears her name. PHOTO: Mustafa Saeed for the Wall Street Journal

“People thought I was wasting my money and time,” Ismail remembers. It hardly helped that the land she was offered was the site of a garbage dump. But in 1997 she sold her car, cashed in her savings, and used her WHO pension to start construction. The U.N. provided a couple of doctors, the British embassy in Addis Ababa sent beds and a plastic skeleton for teaching purposes, the Danish Refugee Council gave a generator, and a visiting German doctor sent an ultrasound machine.

With further help from fundraising organizations in the U.S. and U.K., she opened the doors of her namesake hospital in 2002, and she says it has never turned a patient away. To keep expenses down, she lives on-site: “I’m needed here,” she says. The $1.3 million Templeton Prize should help to ensure the hospital will live on without her.

Though Ismail was married three times and tried “every hormone ever invented,” she was never able to have children. Now she believes her childlessness is what gave her the freedom to build a hospital and devote herself to the care of others. “The 4.5 million people of Somaliland are my children now,” she says.

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