Dr Noel Browne

WHEN DOCTOR Noel Browne visited Galway Social Services Centre in October, scores of people turned out to greet him.

He was there to launch the centre's directory of services for older people. Slight, soft spoken and stylishly attired, he cut a dash among the packed roomful of invited guests.

Within minutes of finishing his speech, in which he raged at the injustices in today's society, he was practically mobbed by well wishers. Most who pushed through the crowds to shake his hand warmly or embrace him were in their 70s or 80s.

Councillor Bridie O' Flaherty observed the rush of people and remarked to this writer: "Only for that man most of these people would not be here today. They belong to the TB generation. They owe him their lives."

When Dr Browne, the former Minister for Health credited with the virtual eradication of tuberculosis from Ireland, died recently, many of the people who came to pay their respects to him at O' Flaherty's Funeral Home did so out of gratitude for the extra years he had given them.

They were ordinary people who probably never spoke to him or saluted him in the street during his 82 years but whose lives were touched by him in a very meaningful way. One woman, in her 80s, said she dropped by to say goodbye to him on behalf of her deceased relations who always spoke so highly of the fearless psychiatrist whose own life was marked by struggle, crippling poverty and illness.

In an interview with this writer on TB, Dr Browne said it was difficult for this generation to appreciate the sense of desolation and suffering associated with the disease, which afflicted one in 10 families, wiped out whole communities and accounted for over 4,300 deaths nationally in 1942. And the primitive fear, bred by ignorance, which caused passengers on a bus in the 1950s to hold their breaths when they came within half a mile of a sanatorium. He, and his mother and father contracted the disease, as did four other members of his family.

AIDS has taken the place of TB today, he said, and people's reactions to AIDS mirror public reaction to TB in the 40s and 50s.

Dr Harry Hitchcock, the Galway based doctor who replaced Dr Browne at the Newcastle Sanatorium in Wicklow during his short but momentous career as Minister for Health, remembers him as a doctor for whom no task was too menial. "He did not expect junior doctors to carry out procedures that he would not do himself," Hitchcock recalls in his book, "TB or Not TB". He also remembers him as a man passionately committed to wiping out the disease and a great motivator.

Michael D Higgins knew Dr Browne since the 60s and says he will be remembered by a generation for creating hope for TB sufferers where none had existed.

"He was a great socialist and was controversial in the best sense. I valued his friendship, love and support."

Dr Browne identified with "every decent cause from anti-apartheid to gender and children's issues", he said. "He was proud to have been an influence right up to the eighties when he successfully sought to eliminate corporal punishment from schools. I will miss his sensitive presence and his quiet words."

Hollywood actor Gabriel Byrne once described the man, whose name was synonymous with political controversy and whose career was dominated in public memory by the 1951 Mother and Child Scheme, as one of Ireland's greatest men and one of the real sex symbols of our time.

He said then: "He is one of the most caring politicians to come out of Ireland. He looks like a movie star. If I look like him when I'm 50, I'll be happy."

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