Distinguished Alumni

Prof. Mungai

Prof. Mungai

Joseph Maina Mungai (born in Kenya, 1932; died August 2003) was the first African to become Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Nairobi.[1] Besides a medical journal editor position from which he resigned in 1974,[2] and a long-term stint as a newspaper correspondent, he was also Head and faculty member of the Department of Anatomy, a writer, and to an extent limited by other career demands, engaged in medical practice. Additionally, from the late 1960s until his retirement, he remained active in the Kenyan civil service.

Having been one of the earliest Africans to engage in scientific research work, activity begun with neurologic research while studying for his doctorate in London, UK, and continued along with production of scientific research papers well into the 1980s, he has also been described as a pioneer medical researcher in East Africa.[3] That his interest in scientific research extended beyond laboratory walls has been exhibited. An example is when he was acknowledged for having suggested to Derek J. Chadwick of CIBA Foundation that the foundation's Symposium on the Molecular Biology and Pathology of Elastic Tissues be held in Nairobi. Mungai, with colleagues J. K. Kimani and A. H. Walji had, about seven years earlier completed a research paper on subject matter which tied in with the symposium's main themes: elastin fibre content in a primate species.[4]

His idea for Nairobi as a venue was backed by Bob Mecham of Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri, and by Leslie Robert of France. Further co-ordination of the event was provided by Davy Koech and Ms. Shah of KEMRI (Kenya Medical Research Institute); and Mungai's colleague James K. Kimani of the University of Nairobi's Department of Anatomy who was, until his death on 14 September 2006, a researcher in anatomy, neurology, pathology, histology, elastins and bioelasticity of biological tissues and structures (1977–1997); lecturer and professor,[5] as well as Secretary-General of SONA (Society of Neuroscientists in Africa), an organisation associated with PAAN (Pan African Association of Neurological Sciences).[6][7][8] The event, CIBA's 192nd symposium, was held 1–3 November 1994, at the Windsor Golf and Country Club in Nairobi.[9]

Having completed high school at Alliance Boys' High School (now Alliance High School) in Kikuyu, Kenya, Mungai attended medical school at Makerere University, and qualified for licensing as a medical surgeon in 1961. By 1962, while still at Makerere, he had registered on the Kenya Medical Practitioner and Dental Board.[10] He enrolled and completed studies which were offered as the East African medical studies program by the University College of London (UK), where he received his medical and surgical degrees (MB., Ch.B.) in 1964.[11] He completed his doctorate (PhD) studies while in London.


As Dean, beginning in the late 1960s, Mungai was instrumentally involved in founding of the university's School of Medicine.[12] In an article narrating a 1972 visit to the major universities in three African Great Lakes countries (Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya) by the Dean of the College of Medicine at Washington, DC's Howard University, Marion Mann (Howard University alumnus 1954), mention is made of his visit to the University of Nairobi where he met Mungai.[13]

Mann assessed the volume and pace of completion of the spacious, modern facilities of the university's newly instituted College of Medicine as 'impressive'. Completed phases included four medical student dormitories, Allied Health Professions building, and a School of Nursing. Further, according to the article, in his capacity as Dean, Mungai had also been charged with development of 10- to 30-year blue-prints for institution of national health resources and health services delivery. A major intent of such development was to accommodate and provide for health services to rural areas which, in the early 1970s, constituted residency locales for 90% of Kenya's population. The two doctors discussed Mungai's interest in institution of a Dental School and dental education for dentistry students, as well as dental assistants; the potential for exchange of students and teaching personnel between the two universities, and the feasibility of obtaining funding from external sources, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Mungai expressed hope to Mann that Howard University would secure admission for at least one Kenyan dentistry student that year, and for multiple students in ensuing years.

Mungai was, for a brief period in 1970, the university's Acting Vice-Chancellor. He had been the Acting Vice-Chancellor since the end of Arthur Thomas Porter's term as Principal of the University College, Nairobi in 1970. Porter, a historian, was, prior to his years in East Africa, a Vice-Principal of Fourah Bay College in his native country, Sierra Leone. The end of Porter's term coincided with the dissolution of the University of East Africa, which had been composed of three colleges (University College, Nairobi and those at Makerere and Dar es Salaam); and institution of three distinct national universities: the University of Nairobi in Kenya, Makerere University in Uganda, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It was not until years later that Mungai would return to the position of Vice-Chancellor.


Before mid-year 1970, Chancellor President Jomo Kenyatta appointed Josephat Karanja, a former ambassador to Britain, as the University of Nairobi's first Vice-Chancellor. Mungai was appointed as Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and retained the position until 1979. Mungai returned to the role of Vice-Chancellor of the university several years later, in 1979, when Karanja left academia to return to his political career. At age 47, Mungai was appointed Vice-Chancellor by Chancellor Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, the second President of Kenya. He completed his Vice-Chancellorship term in 1985, and moved on to other posts.[14] Deputy Vice-Chancellors appointed while Mungai was Vice-Chancellor included Festo A. Mutere, who in 1979 had received an additional appointment – by J.J. Ogutu, Minister for Tourism & Wildlife – as chairman of the board of Management of KMFRI (Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute),[15] and Philip M. Mbithi, another future Vice-Chancellor.[16]

Prior to formulation of revised law termed the University of Nairobi Act of 1985,[17] appointment of Vice-Chancellorship candidates was based largely on qualifications, seniority and tenure. Use of appointments, rather than competitive process during the early years of the university's establishment was considered fair and was extremely apt, given the small number of PhDs in the country prior to the 1980s. The 1985 Act provided that Chancellorship of the University of Nairobi can be by the President of Kenya, or anyone the President determines fit for the position. Chancellorship and other university appointments made by a president were and are subject to termination once the appointing presidency terminates.

The Chancellor role includes appointment of the Vice-Chancellor based on advice received from the University Council. The Vice-Chancellor is expected to remain eligible for re-appointment upon expiration of his or her appointed 5-year term. The University Council selects candidates for the Vice-Chancellor seat based on an open hiring practice and competitive process.

National and international appointments:
Mungai was one of 24 selectees for appointment as council-members on the University Council of the United Nations University (UNU) in 1974,. He resigned his seat there in 1976.[18][19] During the mid- to late 1970s, he was assigned a trusteeship on the Kenya Hospital Authority Trust Fund; and in 1977 appointed as the first Chairman of the National Council for Science & Technology.[20]

In October 1969, Jeremiah J.M. Nyagah, Minister for Natural Resources, appointed Mungai as a member of the Museum Trustees of Kenya.[21] Previously, while still in his early twenties, Mungai had joined with Joel Ojai and Thomas Odhiambo – who in later years was an entomologist and environmental scientist – in helping Louis Leakey,[22][23] prominent archaeologist and pioneer in East African anthropology and palaeontology, found the Kenya Museum Associates. The entity was formed in 1955, with its objectives and goals set towards fund-raising and financing of palaeontological programs and activities.

Since then, the Kenya Museum Associates has been replaced by the Kenya Museum Society,[24] a fund-raising, promotion, training, and support entity for the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) established in 1971 by Richard Leakey, Kenyan conservationist, archaeologist, and palaeontologist, who is the son of Louis Leakey and his wife, British archaeologist and anthropologist Mary Leakey. In the early 1970s, Mungai co-authored anthropological papers with Richard Leakey and Alan C. Walker, formerly of Makere University and University of Nairobi, of late at Pennsylvania State University, USA. In 1979, he was again appointed as a member of the Museum Trustees of Kenya.[25]

Appointments which followed during the 1980s included membership on the Kenya National Examination Council, the University Grants Committee (two terms), the Governing Body of the Egerton Agricultural College (now Egerton University), and a short-term Committee for Review of Terms and Conditions (including pay and benefits, working conditions, working culture, productivity and efficiency) for staff members of the national universities. For a number of years beginning in 1985, he was appointed (with annual renewal of appointment) as Secretary of the Commission for Higher Education, an accrediting body for public and private educational institutes. While in that capacity, Mungai was an authorising party for establishment of the Kenya Methodist University.[26] The Commission membership included representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Finance, Vice-Chancellors and Deputy Vice-Chancellors from the major universities, as well as Directors from the major post-secondary research and technical institutes.[27]

In August 1989, Mungai was appointed as a member of the Board of Governors of the NMK. Other appointees included Richard E. Leakey as chairman of the board, and Mungai's co-members of the Board: Idha Salim, R. Murungi, F. J. Wangati, Rosalie Osborn, John Karmali, David Andere, and Permanent-Secretaries of the Office of the Vice-President, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Home Affairs & National Heritage. The appointment of the Board members was by D. N. Kuguru, who was then Kenya's Minister for Home Affairs & National Heritage.[28]

Family and church:
In his private life, Mungai was a devoted family and an active church elder with the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church of Nairobi, which is a member church of the PCEA (Presbyterian Church of East Africa). Mungai died in August 2003.[32] Ceremonies conducted a week later were attended by 'thousands'. A funeral service at St. Andrew's church was preceded by a drive-through of his casket at the university's Chiromo Campus, where he had taught for much of his career.[33][34] He was survived by his wife, four children, and his grandchildren.

Books (includes proceedings reports printed as booklets):

  • "From Simple to Complex: The Journey of a Herdsboy", an autobiography by J.M. Mungai. Kenway Publications (2002); 288 p.
  • "Research and Education in Kenya: Utilisation of Research Done at Kenyatta University to Advance Education", J.M. Mungai, Kenyatta University Nairobi (1999); 321 p.
  • "The Teaching and Practice of Family Health: Proceedings of a Regional Seminar Held in the Board Room of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Nairobi, Kenyatta National Hospital, between 19–21 February 1973", J. M. Mungai. Association of Medical Schools in Africa; 57 p

Research and journal papers (list excludes letters and newspaper articles):

  • Afr J Health Sci.; 5 (1): 2–7 (Jan.-Mar. 1998): "Structured AIDS Education Inspires Self-expression of Needs and Beneficial Changes", J. M. Mungai, Commission for Higher Education, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Afr J Health Sci.; 5 (2): 49 (1998): "Integrating Health Research With Socio-cultural Systems In The Fight Against HIV/AIDS", J. M. Mungai.
  • Afr J Health Sci.; 5 (1–2): 50–57 (Apr.-Jun. 1998): "Research Publications Are Important Performance Indicators of University Medical Education In African Countries", J. M. Mungai, Commission for Higher Education, Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Presentation at UNESCO BREDA Dakar sessions in April 1997: "Relevance of Higher Education With Special Reference to East Africa, In Higher Education In Africa: Achievements, Challenges and Prospects", J. M. Mungai (1998).
  • Presentation at UNESCO Nairobi sessions in February 1997: "Relevance of Higher Education In Africa", J. M. Mungai, Commission for Higher Education, Nairobi, Kenya (1997).
  • Afr J Health Sci.; 1 (3): 99 (Jul.-Sep. 1994): "Sustaining Quality and Relevance of Medical Education In Developing Countries", J. M. Mungai.
  • Afr J Health Sci.; 1 (1): 2 (Jan.-Mar. 1994): "Research for Development: Maximisation of Utilisation of Research Results", Joseph Mungai, Department of Human Anatomy, University of Nairobi and Commission for Higher Education, Kenya.
  • Anat Rec.; 219 (2): 152–6 (Oct. 1987): "Segmental Variations in the Elastic Fiber Content of the Lateral Costotransverse Ligaments in the Vervet Monkey (Cercopithecus pygerythrus aethiops)", J. K. Kimani, A. H. Walji, and J. M. Mungai. Department of Human Anatomy, University of Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Acta Anat. (Basel); 115 (2): 117–33 (1983): "Observations on the Structure and Innervation of the Presumptive Carotid Sinus Area in the Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)", J. K. Kimani and J. M. Mungai.
  • Am J Phys Anthropol.; 36 (2): 235-251/52 (Mar. 1972): "New Australopithecines from East Rudolf, Kenya. II.", R. E. Leakey, J. M. Mungai, and A. C. Walker.
  • Am J Phys Anthropol.; 35: 175–186 (1971): "New Australopithecines from East Rudolf, Kenya. I.", R. E. Leakey, J. M. Mungai, and A. C. Walker.
  • J Anat.; 101 (Pt 3): 403–18 (Jun. 1967): "Dendritic Patterns in the Somatic Sensory Cortex of the Cat", Joseph M. Mungai. Department of Anatomy, University College London.

Edited papers (excludes medical journal papers):-

  • "Co-operative Education for Enhanced Growth and Development", Kenya Ministry of Co-operative Development & Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (authors). Florence M. Asila (compiler); J. M. Mungai (ed.). Publisher: Friedrich Ebert Foundation (1988).
  • "Proceedings of the Teaching and Practice of Family Health of the Association of Medical Schools in Africa." Miriam K. Were & East African Academy (authors); J.M. Mungai (ed.). Publisher: East African Academy, Kisumu, Kenya (1973).


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