CANCER: The Intriguing Inception of Uganda Cancer Institute


We just wrapped up the cancer awareness month, let’s look at the brief history of how the Uganda Cancer Institute managed to take root and flourish to its present standard.

The institute has over the years shone bright on its core values of being committed to excellence, diligence, hard work, professionalism as well as standing for respect, integrity and equity.

It also aims at providing hope, healing while cherishing nature, culture and faith.

UCI was established in 1967 as a joint project between Makerere University Medical School, Ministry of Health and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the USA.

It started as a Lymphoma Treatment Centre (LTC) and the main aim was to treat childhood lymphomas, mainly Burkitt’s lymphoma.

Brief History of UCI

When Sir Albert cook built a hospital in Mengo, he highlighted some of the strange diseases he discovered in the people he treated.  Some of them were later discovered to be cancers.


This made other medical elites curious hence the creation of the cancer registry in 1948 at the medical school.

Later in the early 1950s, a surgeon from Ireland, named Dr. Denis Burkitt joined Mulago and among his patients were children with swollen faces which had no explanations and no clear diagnosis after biopsies was done.

Since he was a great writer, he wrote an article describing what he saw.

“It actually became a sensation, it indicated a new disease entity and in 1958 after the article was published, it indicated that it was actually a cancer, a lymphoma for that matter and because it had not been described before they decided that it must be given a new name since it was a new discovery.

Due to lack of a name, the disease was named after him hence the name Burkitt’s lymphoma.

This disease actually cast Uganda into the lime light because it was something to explore since it had not been seen elsewhere in the world,” says Dr Jackson Orem, the current director UCI.

Dr Burkitt’s article was later published in scientific journals that spread all over the world.

The National Cancer Institute in the United States saw an opportunity to open up a centre in Uganda to study chemotherapy using Burkitt’s case study 1967 as they partnered with Ministry of Health and Makerere University hence the birth of UCI.


It was then solely in control of Denis Burkitt as he was the first surgeon who discovered that the unusual children tumor that attacks the jaw and abdomen could be cured with chemotherapy other than surgery.

Later, NCI and Makerere University agreed to open a lymphoma clinic in one of a few vacant buildings that once housed old Mulago hospital.

They opened with only twenty beds and later in 1969, UCI added more twenty beds totaling up to forty as well as an addition of a Solid Tumor Center proposed to research on Kaposi’s sarcoma and liver cancer.

Between the 1960s and 1970s, UCI was ranked the leading international medical research center, in its areas of focus. It later made a partnership with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland for more efficiency and support.

When Idi Amin sent away Asians in 1972, most NCI’s scientists left and Professor Charles Olweny, a Uganda researcher, who was advancing his studies at NCI in the USA abandoned his studies, came back home and became the first Ugandan director of UCI.

This time the government took the initiative to completely fund UCI.

“In 1980s, during Obote II’s regime, the government realized it would no longer provide funding to UCI because of the economic constraints. One fact that remained was that cancer was a problem being swept under the carpet.

Those with Karposi’s Sarcoma and lymphoma were just dying. In 2000 onwards, the numbers of cancers were going high. The assistance of government was not clear and yet people were suffering.

In 2014, that is when I become director and my task was to engage the Ministry of Health.

I talked to then director General of Health, Dr Sam Zaramba who I told that something must be done about the institute and he asked me to find out what other people were thinking.

I then organized a symposium which concluded positively,” narrates Professor Olweny.

Current situation

UCI was voted at the East African community (EAC) level as a center of excellence for Cancer treatment in East Africa.

There are plans to establish the EAC Cancer Regional Center and the IAEA is also planning to open up the Virtual University Center for Cancer Control at the UCI.



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