Dr. Edna Adan Ismail is a nurse/midwife, hospital founder and a healthcare advocate pushing through cultural, religious and medical norms surrounding women’s health in East Africa. She was recently awarded the 2023 Templeton Prize, which honors faith and science contributions.

Last year, Dr. Frank Wilczek won for his work as a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and author in studying and explaining how the fundamental laws of nature have transformed our understanding of the universe.

This year’s award (valued at £1.1 million GBP) is the largest international recognition given to an individual African woman for her work to affirm the dignity of women, officials said. They added that the like Mother Teresa, who won the first Templeton Prize in 1973, Ismail has dedicated herself to helping a community that did not have adequate medical care, thereby achieving a global impact.

“Driven by a passionate belief in women’s innate dignity and divine-given potential, she has enacted a transformation of female health in her native land,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Drawing on the doctrines of the Muslim faith, she has employed her positions of authority to argue passionately that, despite what some have believed, female circumcision is against the teachings of Islam, and deeply harmful to women.”

Ismail followed in her father’s footsteps to become a doctor and she has led an incredible life of service, including as first lady of Somalia. Following the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, she joined the World Health Organization as an advisor. She was the regional technical officer for maternal and child health from 1987 to 1991 and WHO representative to Djibouti from 1991 to 1997. She decided to leave her high-profile international career to return home and fulfill an ambitious dream: to build a hospital from the ground up, the foundation said. 

After the newly re-formed Somaliland declared its independence in 1991— though it remains unrecognized by foreign powers to this day — its government offered her land to realize this vision: a little piece of land that had previously been used as an execution ground and garbage dump. 

Inauspicious as this was — “an ulcer in the center of town,” she called it — the site was proximate to the slums where Edna’s hoped-for patients lived, and so she took it. She sold all of her own assets and belongings to build the hospital, and raised more funding from around the world after a profile of her appeared in The New York Times. With the opening of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in 2002, the miserable land it stood on was transformed.

“I feel blessed and honored to receive this award, which will enable me to make a major contribution to the U.S.-based Friends of Edna Maternity Hospital,” said Edna Adan Ismail, who is now 85. “These funds will be used to support the hospital in carrying out its essential work, such as obtaining medical equipment, hiring expert educators, enabling expansion to serve more patients, and to continue training the next generation of healthcare workers that East Africa so desperately needs.” 

Susan Barreto
Susan Barreto

Susan is an author with a long-time interest in religion and science. She currently edits Covalence, the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology’s online magazine. She has written articles in The Lutheran and the Zygon Center for Religion and Science newsletter. Susan is a board member for the Center for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, the supporting organization for the Zygon Center and the Zygon Journal. She also co-wrote Our Bodies Are Selves with Dr. Philip Hefner and Dr. Ann Pederson.

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