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Mon, 09.30.1968

Benet Omalu, Physician and Forensic Pathologist born

Benet Omalu

*Bennet Omalu was born on this date in 1968. He is a Black Nigerian-American physician, forensic pathologist, and neuropathologist.

Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu is of Igbo ancestry and was born in Njikoka, Anambra, in southeastern Nigeria. The sixth of seven siblings, he was born during the Nigerian Civil War, which caused his family to flee from their home. They returned two years after Omalu's birth. Omalu's mother was a seamstress, and his father was a civil mining engineer. Omalu began primary school at age three and entered the Federal Government College Enugu for secondary school. He attended medical college starting at age 16 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBBS) in 1990, he completed a clinical internship and three years of service work doctoring in the highland city of Jos. He began to search for scholarship opportunities and arrived in Seattle, Washington, in 1994 to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington. In 1995, he joined Columbia University's Harlem Hospital Center for an anatomic and clinical pathology residency training program. Before residency, he trained as a forensic pathologist at Pittsburgh's Allegheny County coroner's office.

Omalu became particularly interested in neuropathology. He holds seven advanced degrees and board certifications and later received fellowships in pathology and neuropathology through the University of Pittsburgh in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and a Master of Public Health (MPH) in epidemiology in 2004 from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.

Omalu's autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster in 2002 led to the re-emergence of awareness of a neurologic condition associated with chronic head trauma called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which had been in boxers and other professional athletes. Webster had died suddenly and unexpectedly following years of struggling with cognitive and intellectual impairment, destitution, mood disorders, depression, drug abuse, and suicide attempts. Although Webster's brain looked normal at autopsy, Omalu conducted independent and self-financed tissue analyses.

He suspected that Webster suffered from dementia pugilistica, a form of dementia induced by repeated blows to the head, a condition found previously in boxers. Using specialized staining, Omalu found large accumulations of tau protein in Webster's brain, which affects mood, emotions, and executive functions like the way that clumps of beta-amyloid protein contribute to Alzheimer's disease. Together with colleagues in the pathology department at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005 in a paper entitled "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player."

Omalu called for further study of the disease. Members of the NFL's mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI) committee later called for its retraction in May 2006. Omalu later partnered with Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon, concussion researcher, and then chairman of the neurosurgery department, and Robert P. Fitzsimmons to fund the Brain Injury Research Institute, which established a brain and tissue bank. In November 2006, Omalu published a second Neurosurgery paper based on his findings in the brain of former NFL player Terry Long, who suffered from depression and died by suicide in 2005. Though Long died at 45, Omalu found tau protein concentrations more consistent with "a 90-year-old brain with advanced Alzheimer's."

Like Webster, Omalu asserted that Long's football career had caused later brain damage and depression. Omalu also found evidence of CTE in the brains of retired NFL players Justin Strzelczyk (d. 2004 at 36 years old), Andre Waters (d. 2006 at 44), and Tom McHale (d. 2008 at 45). In the summer of 2007, Bailes presented his and Omalu's findings to the NFL at a league-wide concussion summit. Bailes later said that the research was "dismissed ."The NFL did not publicly acknowledge the link between concussions sustained in football and long-term neurological effects until December 2009. Finally, in March 2016, the NFL's senior vice president for health and safety policy, Jeff Miller, testified before Congress that the NFL now believed there was a link between football and CTE.

In 2016, the American Medical Association awarded Omalu their highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award, for his work on CTE. He also discovered CTE in the brains of military veterans, publishing the first documented case in a November 2011 article. He found evidence of CTE in a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who later died by suicide. Omalu was the lead author in a study published in November 2017 that, for the first time, confirmed CTE in a living person. A chemical tracer, FDDNP, binds to tau proteins, is detectable by positron emission tomography, and is associated with CTE's distinctive topographical distribution characteristic. Tested on at least a dozen former NFL players, it was confirmed postmortem in former linebacker Fred McNeill.

Omalu's efforts to study and publicize CTE in the face of NFL opposition were reported in a GQ magazine article in 2009. The article was later expanded into a book, Concussion, and adapted into a drama film of the same name. The movie's production led to the creation of a foundation named after Omalu to advance CTE and concussion research. A January 2020 article published in The Washington Post contended that Omalu "routinely exaggerates his accomplishments. On January 28, 2020, Omalu released a rebuttal titled "We are Becoming a Nation of Lies" to the Washington Post article. His book, Truth Doesn't Have a Side: My Alarming Discovery about the Danger of Contact Sports, was published in August 2017. 

Omalu is married to Prema Mutiso, originally from Kenya. They live in Elk Grove, California, and have two children, Ashly and Mark. He is a practicing Catholic and became a naturalized US citizen in February 2015. Omalu served as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County, California, from 2007 until he resigned in 2017 after accusing the county's sheriff Steve Moore, who doubles as coroner, of repeatedly interfering with death investigations to protect law enforcement officers who killed people. An assistant forensic pathologist who joined the office for the opportunity to work with Omalu resigned a few days earlier, citing similar allegations. Omalu is a professor at the University of California, Davis (UCD) Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. He is also currently the President and Medical Director of Bennet Omalu Pathology.

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