Lawrence Henry Yaw Ofosu-Appiah was born on 18 March 1920 in a village called Kukua near Adawso in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Ofosu-Appiah’s parents were Seth Fianko — a teacher and a descendant of the royal family of Kubease, Larteh, Ghana — and Agnes Fianko (née Reynolds) — also a teacher and a descendant of the royal family of Akropong, Akwapim, Ghana.
His education started at Adawso Presbyterian Primary School. In January 1932, he joined Achimota Secondary School for his secondary education. In 1939, he began his career as a Latin and Twi teacher at Achimota School. In January 1942, he joined the Junior Staff Department. He was appointed to work as an Assistant Librarian. He went on to work as an Assistant Museum Curator.
In March 1944, the Achimota Council awarded him an Achimota scholarship to Oxford University, United Kingdom and he was accepted at Hertford College. He was the first black African to come to Oxford to read Classics. He read Honour Moderations and followed it up with Literae Humaniores (Greats).
He went to Jesus College, Cambridge, United Kingdom, in October 1948 to complete a diploma in Anthropology. Shortly after that, he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Classics at the University College Gold Coast, now University of Ghana.
In 1954, he had the honour of composing in Latin, the inscription which was to be unveiled at the official opening of Akuafo Hall in 1955. In July 1954, he married Victoria Boohemaa Addo from Akropong, Akwapim. They had three daughters, Asantewa, Oseiwa and Asabea.
In April 1959, he was promoted to a Senior Lectureship in Classics. He was then appointed Senior Tutor in Akuafo Hall and presented his first students for graduation to the Duke of Edinburgh at the Great Hall of the University. He was chosen to represent the University of Ghana at the inauguration of the University Institute in Mogadishu in January 1960.
Ofosu-Appiah was elected a Fellow of the Ghana Academy of Learning in 1961. He was subsequently elected to the Standing Committee of the Ghana Academy of Sciences for 1963-64. In October 1961, he was appointed as a government representative to the West African Examination Council. In 1962, he was appointed to the Interim Council of the University of Cape Coast to represent the Arts Faculty. He was also elected Chairman of the University Primary School, Legon Board in 1964.
Later in 1962, he was elected master of Akuafo Hall, University of Ghana, Legon. He was the first African master of the hall and the installation was done by Professor Adu Boahen, the Senior Tutor at the time.
He was also offered the distinguished scholar’s chair for 1965-66: “The Edgar B. Stern University Professor”, at Dillard University, New Orleans, Louisiana. He accepted the post and was assigned to the Division of Humanities and taught Philosophy and Literature including Greek Literature in Translation.
Ofosu-Appiah accepted the position of Director of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project in Accra in August 1966. This was a project inspired by W.E.B. DuBois. He met with the then Director of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sir William Hailley, who advised that the biographies would make sense only if they had a historical introduction and to have several volumes of country to country biographies.
The first volume of the “Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of Biographies, “Ethiopia-Ghana” was published in June 1977. This was followed by the second volume, “Sierra Leone-Zaire” in December 1979.
He was appointed the Chairman of the Ghana Library Board in March 1967. In 1969, he opened the Bolgatanga Library. In 1970, when asked by the government of the Second Republic to continue as the Chairman, he created a new Ghana Library Board Act; which was implemented in June 1970.
He was appointed a member of the National Advisory Committee of the National Liberation Council from 1967 to 1968. He was also appointed a member of the Committee on Imprisoned Political Offenders. These two roles he did voluntarily. In September 1967, he was appointed a member of the Board of Directors of the Ghana Airways Corporation until April 1969.
After the inauguration of the Second Republic took place in 1969, he was offered the Chairmanship of the Ghana State Housing Corporation. He was also elected to the National Executive of the Progress Party in 1970 and subsequently appointed the Chairman of a Committee on the Winneba Training College and his terms of reference included suggestions for the improvement of higher education.
A committee was set up in 1967 to establish lectures in memory of J.B. Danquah and Ofosu-Appiah chaired it. The lectures began in February 1968 and he delivered the anniversary lectures in 1969, as well as the eighth series of lectures in 1975 on the subject: ‘Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford: The Man of Vision and Faith.’ This lecture was published in 1976.
In October 1968, he won a seat on the board of the Ghanaian Council for Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR). He then went on to be elected the Honorary Secretary of the Ghana Academy of Sciences(GAS).
In 1962, he translated Homer’s Odyssey into Twi and it was used as a set book by the Ministry of Education of Ghana. He wrote ‘People in Bondage’ which was published in the USA by Lerner Publishing Corporation; and ‘Slavery: A Brief Survey’ which was published in Ghana by Waterville.
In 1969, he completed ‘The Life and Times of J. B. Danquah’, ensuring that the part Danquah played in Gold Coast politics would not be forgotten. This was eventually published in August 1974. 1970 saw the start of yet another book: ‘The Life of Lt. General Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka’. This book was published in 1972. At the suggestion of James Moxon, he wrote the book “The life of Dr. J.E.K. Aggrey”. This was published by Waterville just in time for the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the birth of Aggrey in 1975.
In 1975, he tried unsuccessfully to get a Twi Language and Literature Research Unit established. He however succeeded in getting the Ghana Languages Development Committee to pay for the publication of his Twi translation of Plato’s Apology. He also translated Sophocles Antigone for Waterville to publish. He was helped by Rev. E.K. Kwabbi, D.O. Kwapong and E.T. Koramoa to achieve this goal.
Again in 1975, he began writing an English-Twi dictionary with the help of Mr. E.O. Koranteng who was at the time on the staff of the University of Ghana Language Centre. This he attempted to get published in 1985 but could not find any publishers interested at the time. This work however, will be published in the near future. He also wrote an article for the “Conspectus of the World Encyclopaedia of Black Peoples of the World” which was published by Scholarly Press in September 1975.
Ofosu-Appiah died on June 1 1990, at the Luton & Dunstable Hospital, Bedfordshire, United Kingdom. He was buried at the Vale Cemetery, Butterfield Green, Luton, on 11th June 1990. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.
‘Pioneering Austerity in Ghana’s Academia’
‘With the death of Professor L.H. Ofosu-Appiah at the biblical age of 70, there remains the memory of an articulate and a remarkable member of the tiny Ghanaian academic elite who were associated with the development of the University College of the Gold Coast, now the University of Ghana. Ofosu-Appiah was a serious minded academic. His former students, now in various positions of authority in Ghana and other parts of Africa, remember him as an inspiring teacher and a caring and an assiduous ‘moral tutor’ (for Oxbridge terminology migrated with the gowns and the entire atmosphere) at Akuafo Hall.
He is also remembered as a fearless defender of the academic standards and independence of the University at a time when Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, then President of Ghana, was taking the first steps aimed at bringing the University under some form of governmental control. Ofosu-Appiah brought high standards of efficiency, objectivity and strength of character to everything he did. He believed that it was only through such standards and qualities that lasting institutions could be built in a developing African country.
For this reason, he tended to take up principled positions on a variety of issues, local and national, glimpses of which are provided in his two main publications; ‘The Life and Times of J.B. Danquah and his biography of E.K. Kotoka.’ He also took up public causes and this endeared him to a number of Ghanaian professionals. A less welcome result was that his motives were apt to be misunderstood, so he encountered a few powerful enemies who created problems for him in his last years as Director of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project, problems which, however, he handled with dignity and admirable aplomb.”
Prof. S.O. Biobaku, (Chairman of the Encyclopaedia Africana Project in 1990) wrote:
‘Prof. Ofosu-Appiah came to the Project after distinguished service in academia, notably at the University of Ghana, Legon and his energy and devotion were manifested in the production of the first two volumes of the Encyclopaedia Africana Biographical Dictionaries.’
In the book ‘Margaret Laurence: The Making of a Writer’ by Donez Xiques(2005); Margaret Laurence, the famous Canadian literary giant wrote about him, underscoring the important role he played in her developing sense of the complex situation in the Gold Coast in the 1950s. He was the subject of her article ‘The Very Best Intentions,’ which appeared in Holiday (November 1964). She mentioned him again in ‘Heart of a Stranger’ (1976) and ‘Dance on the Earth’, where she noted the way in which their friendship helped to provide her with a more nuanced understanding of the situation in West Africa.’