Noël Christopher Browne, Irish politician who serves as Minister for Health from 1948 to 1951 and Leader of the National Progressive Democrats from 1958 to 1963, is born at Bath Street in Waterford, County Waterford, on December 20, 1915. He holds the distinction of being one of only seven TDs to be appointed to the cabinet on the start of their first term in the Dáil.
Browne grows up in the Bogside area of Derry. The Browne family also lives in Athlone and Ballinrobe for a period of time. His mother Mary Therese (née Cooney) is born in 1885 in Hollymount, County Mayo. His father Joseph Brown, an Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) sergeant, later works 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 becomes infected with tuberculosis. Both parents die of the disease during the 1920s. His father is the first to die, leaving only £100 behind to support a wife and seven children. Fearing that if she and the children remain in Ireland they will be forced into a workhouse, Mary sells all their possessions and takes the family to London. Within two days of their arrival, Mary is dead, later buried in a pauper’s grave. Of her seven children, six contract tuberculosis. Noël is only one of two Browne children to survive into adulthood after those bouts with TB.
In 1929, Browne is admitted free of charge to St. Anthony’s, a preparatory school in Eastbourne, England. He then wins a scholarship to Beaumont College, the Jesuit public school near Old Windsor, Berkshire, where he befriends Neville Chance, a wealthy boy from Dublin. Neville’s father, the eminent surgeon Arthur Chance, subsequently pays Browne’s way through medical school at Trinity College Dublin.
In 1940, while still a student, Browne suffers a serious relapse of tuberculosis. His treatment at a sanatorium in Midhurst, Sussex is paid for by the Chance family. He recovers, passes his medical exams in 1942, and starts his career as a medical intern at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital in Dublin, where he works under Bethel Solomons. He subsequently works in numerous sanatoria throughout Ireland and England, witnessing the ravages of the disease. He soon concludes that politics is the only way in which he can make an attack on the scourge of tuberculosis.
The poverty and tragedy that had shaped Browne’s childhood deeply affects him. He considers both his survival and his level of education a complete fluke, a stroke of random chance that saved him when he was seemingly destined to die unknown and in poverty like the rest of his family. He finds this completely distasteful and is moved to enter politics as a means to ensure no one else would suffer the same fate that had befallen his family.
Browne joins the new Irish republican party Clann na Poblachta and is elected to Dáil Éireann for the Dublin South-East constituency at the 1948 Irish general election. To the surprise of many, party leader, Seán MacBride, chooses him to be one of the party’s two ministers in the new government. He becomes one of the few TDs appointed a Minister on their first day in Dáil Éireann, when he is appointed Minister for Health.
A ‘White Paper’ on proposed healthcare reforms had been prepared by the previous government, and results in the 1947 Health Act. In February 1948, Browne becomes Minister for Health and starts the reforms advocated by the Paper and introduced by the Act.
The health reforms coincide with the development of a new vaccine and of new drugs (e.g., BCG and penicillin) that help to treat a previously untreatable group of medical conditions. Browne introduces mass free screening for tuberculosis sufferers and launches a huge construction program to build new hospitals and sanitoria, financed by the income and accumulated investments from the Department of Health-controlled Hospital Sweeps funds. This, along with the introduction of Streptomycin, helps dramatically reduce the incidence of tuberculosis in Ireland.
As Minister for Health Browne comes into conflict with the bishops of the Catholic Church and the medical profession over the Mother and Child Scheme. This plan, also introduced by the 1947 Health Act, provides for free state-funded healthcare for all mothers and children aged under 16, with no means test, a move which is regarded as radical at the time in Ireland, but not in the rest of Europe. Virtually all doctors in private practice oppose the scheme, because it would undermine the “fee for service” model on which their income depended.
The Church hierarchy, which controls many hospitals, vigorously opposes the expansion of “socialised medicine” in the Irish republic. They claim that the Mother and Child Scheme interferes with parental rights, and fear that the provision of non-religious medical advice to mothers will lead to birth control contrary to Catholic teaching. They greatly dislike Browne, seeing him as a “Trinity Catholic,” one who has defied the Church’s ruling that the faithful should not attend Trinity College Dublin, which had been founded by Protestants and for many years did not allow Catholics to study there.
Under pressure from bishops, the coalition government backs away from the Mother and Child Scheme and forces Browne’s resignation as Minister for Health. Following his departure from government, he embarrasses his opponents by arranging for The Irish Times to publish Taoiseach John A. Costello‘s and MacBride’s correspondence with the Catholic hierarchy, which details their capitulation to the bishops.
The controversy over the Mother and Child Scheme leads to the fall of the coalition government in which Browne had served as a Minister. But Church opposition to socialised medicine continues under the subsequent Fianna Fáil-led government. The hierarchy does not accept a no-means-test mother-and-infant scheme even when Fianna Fáil reduces the age limit from sixteen years to six weeks, and the government again backs down.
After his resignation as Minister for Health, Browne leaves Clann na Poblachta, but is re-elected to the Dáil as an Independent TD from Dublin South-East in the subsequent election.
Browne joins Fianna Fáil in 1953, but loses his Dáil seat at the 1954 Irish general election. He fails to be selected as a candidate for the 1957 Irish general election and he resigns from the party. He is re-elected at that election for Dublin South-East as an Independent TD.
In 1958, Browne founds the National Progressive Democrats with Jack McQuillan. He holds onto his seat at the 1961 Irish general election, but in 1963, he and McQuillan join the Labour Party, disbanding the National Progressive Democrats. However, he losess his seat at the 1965 Irish general election.
Browne is re-elected as a Labour Party TD at the 1969 Irish general election, again for Dublin South-East. He does not seek a nomination by the Labour Party for the 1973 Irish general election, but instead wins a seat in Seanad Éireann for Dublin University. He remains in the Seanad until the 1977 Irish general election, when he gains the Dublin Artane seat as an Independent Labour TD, having again failed to get the Party nomination.
In 1977 Browne is the first Irish parliamentarian to call for law reforms in regards to homosexuality, which is illegal at the time, and in 1979 is one of the few Irish politicians to attend the opening of the Hirschfeld Centre, Dublin’s first full-time LGBT community space.
Upon its formation, Browne joins the new Socialist Labour Party and is briefly its only TD, securing election for Dublin North-Central at the 1981 Irish general election. He retires from politics at the February 1982 Irish general election.
In 1990, a number of left-wing representatives within the Labour Party, led by Michael D. Higgins, approach Browne and suggest that he should be the party’s candidate in the presidential election due later that year. Though in failing health, Browne agrees. However, the offer horrifies party leader Dick Spring and his close associates for two reasons. Firstly, the leadership had secretly decided to run Mary Robinson, a barrister and former senator. Secondly, many around Spring are “appalled” at the idea of running Browne, believing he has “little or no respect for the party” and is “likely in any event to self-destruct as a candidate.” When Spring informs Browne by telephone that the party’s Administrative Council has chosen Robinson over him, Browne hangs up the telephone.
Browne spends the remaining seven years of his life constantly criticising Robinson who had gone on to win the election, thus becoming the seventh President of Ireland, and who is considered highly popular during her term. During the campaign he also indicates support for the rival Fine Gael candidate, Austin Currie.
After retiring from politics, Browne moves with his wife Phyllis to Baile na hAbhann, County Galway. He dies at the age of 81 in the Regional Hospital, Galway, on May 21, 1997. He is buried in a small graveyard near Baile na hAbhann.