Obituary: Lauded general surgeon Harold J Browne
Last among the great breed of general surgeons who raised standards here on return from stint in US, writes Rory Egan
Harold Browne gazed over his half-rimmed reading glasses at the hall packed full of students and colleagues who had come to honour him. "I am so glad that I am alive to get this tribute as usually you have to die first to be honoured in such a way". It was a typically humorous and apt remark from a man who richly deserved all the tributes he got for his unequalled contribution to surgery in Ireland.
The occasion was January 16, 2007 when the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), where he had lectured for an astonishing 60 years, dedicated the Harold Browne Lecture Room to him. He was the last, and indeed the best, of the great breed of general surgeons that had such a wealth and breadth of experience in all areas of medical surgery before specialisation made such a thing impossible.
Born on November 15, 1922 to Fred and Nellie Browne, the eldest of seven boys and one girl, his father was a farmer and horse expert in Clonbroney, Co Longford. Harold developed a great love for horses and competed on his beloved pony, Sunshine, winning the prestigious prize for the 'Best Pony' in the RDS in 1934.
He excelled at St Mel's College in Longford, having that rare combination of great intelligence added to a steely determination and strong work ethic. He studied Medicine at UCD where he graduated in 1946 and began his medical career as a house surgeon in the Richmond Hospital. He successfully applied for the post of anaesthetist there and this gave him a chance to observe the different surgeons at work. In 1950, he was accepted for a fellowship in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. It was a bold move and one that would change his life.
The Mayo Clinic was, and still is, regarded as one of the top surgical hospitals in the world, with over 300 consultants and 500 fellows. In his four years there, Harold did 11 rotations in areas such as neurosurgery, orthopaedics, pathology, urology and general surgery. He worked from morning until night, with holidays unheard of for fellows and four days off as much as he could manage in any year.
On top of all that, he got a scholarship to do his Masters in Surgery in the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
After four years he turned down a position as an orthopaedic surgeon at the clinic as he wanted to return to Ireland. He arrived back to take up the position of registrar at the Richmond in 1954 and became frustrated at the way things were done here. At first, some colleagues laughed at his habit of wearing a white coat and trousers when in surgery. In 1954, most surgeons conducted operations in a jacket and tie, even smoking during procedures. They soon followed his lead and Harold vowed to dedicate his life to improving standards in surgery here. Thus started his long association with the College of Surgeons where he lectured in anatomy from 1954 to 2014, became surgeon prosector in the Department of Anatomy and went on to become president of the Medical Council from 1989 to 1994.
Before he left for America, he met another doctor in the Richmond called Aileen MacClancy. They kept in touch and though she was working in London, she returned to Dublin for a visit. Soon they were 'going out' together. They married in December 1955 and in January 1957 their son Michael was born. This was followed by the births of Philip, Richard, Elizabeth and Ingrid to complete the family. Their house in Sandymount became a much sought after invitation on the social scene. When Aileen passed away in 1982, Harold spent every hour he had free being there for his children. In a book written by his daughter-in-law, Anne Duff Browne, Philip's wife, some of Harold's children's fondest memories were going in to the Richmond with their father while he did his rounds.
Harold was a long-time member of Milltown Golf Club where he played with other medical luminaries from Professor John Cooney to Dr Harry Counihan. He had a passion for Arsenal FC and on his 90th birthday he received a letter from manager Arsene Wenger. He said one of the most exciting moments was when he sat in the boardroom on a visit arranged by Philip and Richard back in 1988.
Harold married Vivienne Nash, a much respected theatre nurse, in 1999 and her love and care were instrumental in him getting so much out of his later years. His achievements are too numerous to list in one obituary but one of his fondest tributes was being elected president of the Biological Society in his 90th year. Harold Browne was and is a legend in the field of medicine both here and abroad, but to those that knew him, it was his warmth, humour and graciousness that shone through above all else.