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Prof Ivor Browne: An iconic figure in Irish public life

By Prof Brendan Kelly - 09th Jun 2024

prof ivor browne
Prof Ivor Browne (Photo Credit: Alan Gilsenan)

The death of Prof William Ivory (Ivor) Browne, psychiatrist and social reformer, is a deep personal loss to his family, friends, patients, and colleagues, and a significant moment in the history of psychiatry. A distinctive, iconic figure in Irish public life, Browne will be missed by many.

Born in Dublin in 1929, Browne was educated at Blackrock College and graduated from the RCSI in 1954. After spending time abroad, Browne served as Chief Psychiatrist at St Brendan’s Hospital at Grangegorman in Dublin from 1965 to 1994, and Professor of Psychiatry at University College Dublin from 1967 to 1994. For many years, Browne led the dismantling of the Grangegorman institution and the development of community mental health services, during the 1970s and 1980s. Along with Dr Dermot Walsh and others, he worked tirelessly to replace the “mental hospital” with services that supported people in their communities, rather than relying on lengthy hospital stays.

Prof Browne and President Michael D Higgins (Photo Credit: Maxwells)

In parallel with these initiatives, Browne pioneered novel and, at times, unorthodox treatments at St Brendan’s, including psychotherapy involving breathwork and ketamine. It is a matter of regret that this programme of therapy was not placed on a research footing at the time, so as to study it in a more systematic way, and determine its impact more clearly.

In 1968, Browne established the Irish Foundation for Human Development and, in 1983, was appointed Chair of the group of European experts set up by the European Economic Community for the reform of Greek psychiatry. After his retirement in 1994, Browne continued his psychotherapeutic practice and pursued his interests in stress management, living system theory, and Sahaj Marg meditation.

Browne had a significant public profile (often appearing on television) and was censured by the Medical Council in 1996 for speaking out in support of Phyllis Hamilton who had revealed her affair with Fr Michael Cleary.

However, the Council also found that Browne had always acted in the interests of his patient.

Browne was a deeply dedicated therapist, with a particular interest in the effects of trauma on the body and mind.

Browne was a fascinating conversationalist who could puncture ego with the mischievous insouciance of a Zen master. He frequently punctured mine.

In 2014, Browne instigated a reading group of psychiatrists, which I was privileged to be part of. We met to discuss books about psychiatry, the human condition, and – in true Browne style – the state of civilisation. There was no limit to Browne’s imagination. He recognised no horizon. While Browne was not in a position to participate in the reading group in recent times, it continues to meet.

Browne had a significant influence on several generations of medical students and psychiatry trainees. Psychiatrist Dr Aisling Campbell recalls Browne’s “huge influence” on her: “I vividly recall attending one of his group sessions in St Brendan’s in the 1980s, to which he had invited me. He really sparked my interest in psychotherapy and he kept the importance of talking therapy in general alive in Ireland at a time when psychopharmacology seemed to promise so much. He was undoubtedly one of the most important doctors of his generation and he used his charisma to the very best ends.”

Browne had a significant influence on several generations of medical students and psychiatry trainees

Following Browne’s death, President of Ireland Michael D Higgins said that Browne “will be remembered by many citizens as a visionary and radical psychiatrist who left a profound mark on the understanding and attitudes to mental illness in Ireland.”

“Indeed, he is among those outstanding pioneers whose view was one that stressed the value of a holistic approach to life in all its aspects, with culture and human relations at its centre, who has so transformed our understanding of, and our approach to, mental illness in Ireland.”

Ivor Browne leaves many legacies. Perhaps the most profound is the additional liberty enjoyed by so many people with mental illness who avoided institutionalisation as a result of the reforms which Browne came to represent. Mental health services are still far from perfect, and a great deal more needs to be done, especially in community services for adults, adolescents, and children. But moving away from the old psychiatric institutions was a crucial, historic step forward, and Browne was an essential part of that process.

Prof Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of Resilience: Lessons from Sir William Wilde on Life After Covid (Wordwell, 2023).

Quotations from President Michael D Higgins are ©2024 President of Ireland.

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The Medical Independent 11th June 2024

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