Dr Noel Browne was first elected to Dail Eireann for the new Clann na Poblachta party in 1948. He was immediately appointed Minister for Health, but was forced to resign in 1951, following opposition to his Mother and Child free healthcare scheme from Catholic bishops and the medical profession. His place in Irish history is inextricably linked to that controversy.
Noel Browne was born in Waterford on December 20, 1915, but grew up in Derry, Athlone and Ballinrobe. His father worked as an inspector for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and, partly as a result of this work, all of the Browne family became infected with tuberculosis. His fater died of the disease as did several of his siblings. His mother’s death came two years after he lost his father.
He was educated free of charge at St. Anthony’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, England. He then won a scholarship to Beaumont College, Berkshire, where he befriended Neville Chance, whose father, the Dublin surgeon Arthur Chance, subsequently paid Browne’s way through medical school at Trinity College, Dublin.
After qualifying at TCD he worked as an intern at Dr Steven’s Hospital, Dublin. He married Phyllis Harrison in 1944.
His political philosophy and ideals were shaped by the fatal blows dealt to his family by TB, rife in Ireland until the 1950s. Nor did he escape the disease, diagnosed in both lungs in 1939, but survived.
His campaigning for an urgent anti-TB programme made him the choice for Minister for Health when the new progressive party, Clann na Poblachta, led by Sean Mac Bride, joined the conservative Fine Gael party in government in 1948. Though just 32, he was a crusading and dynamic innovator, using Hospital Sweepstakes funds to build a network of sanatoria to exploit the possibilities opened by the arrival of BCG vaccine. He also set up the first Irish national blood transfusion service.
Admirers say his freshness to politics helped him break new ground. But fellow Ministers reportedly found him petulant, unwilling to listen, and convinced he was always right.
However Noel Browne was soon on a collision course with the Irish Catholic hierarchy over the Mother and Child Scheme. Taking up proposals first mapped out by the previous Fianna Fail government, Dr Browne aimed to tackle high levels of child mortality by bringing in free health care for mothers and extending free health treatment for all children under 16, without a means test.
While attempts were made by Noel Browne to reach an accommodation with the hierarchy, he was off to a poor start in 1949 when he was the only Government Minister to attend the Church of Ireland funeral of Douglas Hyde, first President of Ireland. Nor would his Trinity College background have been looked upon favourably.
However, he had also failed to prepare the ground with the Cabinet, who were unaware of the details of the scheme when it was launched in March, 1951. When their views were invited, the bishops, led by the arch conservative John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, avoided stating whether the plan was at odds with Catholic morality but denounced it as at variance with the Church’s social teaching. At the root of their opposition was the perception that Browne’s scheme would open the way to liberal family planning and contraception.
The plan provided for state-funded healthcare, almost unheard of in Ireland at the time. Defeated by the hierarchy and doctors and the political manoueverings of Fianna Fail, he resigned as Minister for Health on April 11, 1951. He was also expelled from Clann na Poblachta but was elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD in the subsequent election. Although many viewed his Mother and Child Scheme as a failure, much of its policies were eventually introduced by the following Fianna Fáil government.
Ironically, Browne joined Fianna Fáil in 1953, but lost his Dáil seat in the 1954 general election. He was later expelled from Fianna Fáil and became an isolated and angry figure on the Irish political landscape. In 1957 he was elected as an Independent TD. In 1958 he founded the National Progressive Democrats with Jack McQuillan and in 1963 he and McQuillan joined the Labour Party. However he lost his seat in 1965 only to regain it in 1969. He lost the Labour nomination in 1973 and spent a spell in the Seanad before returning to the Dail in 1977. He retired from politics in 1982 and practiced as a psychiatrist.
Few figures in post WWII Ireland stirred as much controversy as Noel Browne. To some he was a dynamic radical who stood up to conservative and reactionary Catholicism. To others he was an unstable, temperamental and difficult individual who was the author of most of his own misfortune.
After retiring to the Connemara Gaeltacht he published Against the Tide, in 1986, a moving account of his family’s tragedies and his own career, He died on May, 21, 1997, aged 81. He was survived by his wife Phylis and their two daughters.