Monday, June 02, 2008

A little praise for Ivor Browne



Formerly Professor of Psychiatry in UCD here in Ireland, Ivor Browne has always impressed me as a wonderfully sensitive and helpful human being.  I remember his defending the equally great and talented R.D. Laing who appeared somewhat inebriated on the Late Late Show, sometime in the 1980s I think.  Gay Byrne, the host of the show, had in his usual cynical way attacked the drunken psychiatrist in an aggressive manner, thereby making for good television at the expense of ridiculing a sensitive human being.  This was always Byrne's technique, namely that good television was more important than the integrity of the guest.  However, an appreciation of the erstwhile broadcaster's unique cynical but brilliant broadcasting style is beyond my scope in this article here, as I wish to talk about the great Irish psychiatrist Ivor Browne.

Ivor is in the news of late because he has published a MEMOIR entitled: Music and Madness (Atrium, 364pp. €25.)  Therein, Browne tells the story of his unusually controversial and long career in psychiatry in Ireland.  I do intend buying this book and reviewing it in these pages before too long.  However, I have had the privilege of hearing Ivor once and of having read several articles from his pen as well as many reviews of his work.  Hence, as my title indicates this note today is more in the line of a little praise and appreciation for a wonderfully sensitive human being and a marvellous Irish psychiatrist.

Ivor was always a radical in the truest sense of that word.  He had and still has a propensity to get to the heart or to the root (radix = root; hence radical) of any problem.  What an achievement for a radical to get to the very top of his profession and still remain radical!  I found a quote from Browne on the site of the voluntary mental health organization Grow which is excellent in its sheer simplicity:

“To solve a problem, you need action by the person with the problem, you need the knowledge that’s appropriate to this specific situation, and you need the love, trust, motivation and objectivity between the people involved that creates the energy to move the process forward. That sums up what we as professionals should be all about. It also sums up what GROW is all about.”
-Ivor Browne, Consultant Psychiatrist, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, UCD. (From an address given to mental health professional at GROW’s 1994 workshop on mental health.)

The journalist John Spain in a recent article in The Irish Independent gives a wonderfully succinct overview of Browne's career which I will quote somewhat at length as it is so apt to my present post:

To students in Dublin in the late 1960s, Ivor Browne was a kind of god. Although he was Professor of Psychiatry in UCD, he supported the student revolution in Earlsfort Terrace in '68, he smoked dope, he took LSD, he played jazz, he would get down on the floor and talk about changing society. That was just for starters.

He was also someone who had travelled around Ireland in his own student days in the late 1940s, playing traditional music for his supper like a hippie, before hippies were even heard of.

He was a god to the students because he was a radical thinker and a free spirit. Years later he became a devil to the jobsworths (sic) in the Department and the psychiatric profession because he pushed psychiatric care into realms that they could not handle and still get in enough golf. They didn't exactly crucify him for it but, like Christ, he was driven out.

In between these two points Ivor Browne was at the forefront of psychiatric care in Ireland, transforming the way we treated the mentally ill. He was a charismatic individual with little ego or interest in money, a powerful intellect, enormous energy and a compulsion to change both himself and Irish society from within.

Unlike those who saw medicine as a ticket to status and wealth, Browne was filled from the beginning with a spirit of public service, a burning intellectual curiosity about new ways of treating the mentally ill and a determination to change the inhuman mental hospital set-up which locked people up and then forgot about them.

However, for this post I wish to refer in some detail to an interesting interview he did with the philosopher Dr Stephen J. Costello, then a lecturer in philosophy in UCD for the latter's wonderfully enlightening and broadly sweeping book of interviews entitled The Irish Soul In Dialogue (The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2001.)  Therein, Browne reveals himself as an interesting pioneer in psychiatry and also as a very liberal and humane person indeed.  Also he reveals himself as having been very much a mediocre student at school who really did not know where he wanted to go in life; as a somewhat sickly child who suffered from TB and who lived very much in his imagination.  However, having become a psychiatrist, he was quick to realise a lot of home truths among which I will quote the following revelation into psychiatry and psychiatrists:

Most people who enter psychiatry do so because they have questions about themselves.  They have trouble understanding themselves and I certainly had plenty of that.  The sad thing about much psychiatry, about people who take the medical, organic view, is that they end up not studying themselves and so learn nothing and go off into a tunnel.  But I certainly didn't follow that direction. (Op. cit., 11)

Professor Ivor Browne is also unusual because he is both a psychiatrist and a psychotherapist.  He had sessions of psychoanalysis along Adlerian lines with an English Doctor and psychoanalyst called Joshua Bierer in Marlborough, England.  His first job as a psychiatrist was at Oxford where he learned at long last to think for himself as the Oxonians are wont to do.  Thence he went up to London where he worked with psychiatrists who were experimenting with LSD and mental ill health.  Shortly afterwards Browne went to Harvard University where he studied under Drs Lindeman and Caplan.  Both these doctors were interesting in the handling of crisis - in fact, Dr Lindeman was the first to write a paper on unresolved grief and how this led to crisis. (cf. ibid., 12-13)

Professor Browne has much else of interest to discuss in his interview with Stephen J. Costello which I shall summarise in my next post.


Above I have uploaded a picture of the Cliffs of Moher, Co Clare, which I took on Saturday 31st May 2008

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