Bennet Omalu, MD


Birth Date: September 1968
Birth Place: Nnokwa, Idemili South, Nigeria
Parents: Arrival in U.S.A.: Seattle, Washington, 1994
Naturalization Date: February 2015
Homes in U.S.A.: Lodi, California
Place of primary residence: Lodi, California

Doctor, Professor (1968–)

Born in Nnokwa, Nigeria, Bennet Omalu was the first to discover Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players, sparking a national discussion on the nature and lasting health impacts of football the adoption of safety precautions to reduce the risk of brain injury. Recently, and Omalu and his findings were portrayed by Will Smith in the movie Concussion.

Bennet Omalu was born during the Nigerian Civil War, his mother, a seamstress, and his father, a civil engineer, both encouraged his dreams of working in medicine. By the age of 16, Omalu attended medical school at the University of Nigeria and graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery. Omalu then interned at Jos University Hospital before being accepted to an epidemiology fellowship program at the University of Washington in 1994.

In 1995, Omalu joined Columbia University’s Harlem Hospital Center for a residency program in pathology, which studies the cause and effects of diseases. After residency, he moved to Pittsburgh to train under noted pathologist Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County Coroner's Office, becoming interested in neuropathology, which studies diseases of the nervous tissue including the brain.

In 2002, Omalu’s autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster led to Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Webster had died suddenly after years of struggling with intellectual impairment, mood disorders, and depression. Omalu suspected Webster suffered from dementia pugilistica - dementia induced by repeated blows to the head, a condition found in boxers. Using specialized staining, Omalu found large accumulations of tau protein in Webster's brain, affecting mood, emotions, and executive functions similar to proteins that contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

Together with colleagues in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, Omalu published his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005 in a paper titled "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player." In it, Omalu called for further study of the disease: "We herein report the first documented case of long-term neurodegenerative changes in a retired professional NFL player consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This case draws attention to a disease that remains inadequately studied in the cohort of professional football players, with unknown true prevalence rates." The NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) Committee demanded a retraction and sought to discredit Omalu's research as flawed, refusing to acknowledge a link between the sport and the brain damage in former players. Omalu found further evidence of CTE in retired NFL players, such as, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long, Andre Waters, and Tom McHale. The NFL did not publicly acknowledge the link between concussions sustained in football and CTE until December 2009, seven years after Omalu's discovery.

Omalu moved to California in the fall of 2007 to begin his new position as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County and in 2008, he published his first book, Play Hard, Die Young: Football Dementia, Depression, and Death. In 2009, a GQ article detailed his efforts to raise awareness of his story about CTE and the NFL’s refusal to cooperate. This finally led to rule changes to enhance safety in the NFL and precautions in youth and college football play to reduce injury risks.

Recently, Omalu’s story reached the hands of Peter Landesman, who created the feature film Concussion starring the actor Will Smith as Omalu.

Omalu holds eight advanced degrees and board certifications including fellowships in pathology and neuropathology through the University of Pittsburgh in 2000 and 2002 respectively, a Master in Public Health (MPH) & Epidemiology in 2004 from University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and a Master in Business Administration (MBA) from Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008. He is also currently a professor in the UC Davis Department of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine.

Bennet Omalu currently lives in Lodi, California with his wife, Prema Mutiso, and they have two children, Ashly and Mark.

Photograph Source: UC Davis Health System

Last updated: January 20, 2017