Farewell, dear friend

Harold with two of his sons

Harold with two of his sons

This is Harold who died earlier this week. He is the only person I know who had a lecture theatre named after him while he was still alive.

Unusually for a Dublin surgeon, Harold was not one of the Dublin medical ‘masonry’. He was one of nine children born to Fred and Nellie Browne of County Longford, and earned his medical and surgical qualifications through application and skill rather than family connexions and the sense of entitlement that comes with them. He was one of the first Irish surgeons to collect a BTA qualification (‘been to America’ – in his case the prestigious Mayo Clinic), after which he had a long and distinguished career at The Richmond Hospital in Dublin. He retired from full-time surgery in 1987.

Harold’s care for his patients was exemplary and his surgical ‘nous’ second to none. Those who knew him in those days describe him as a hard taskmaster. Severe is a word that has been used. His standards were high and his expectations higher. I suspect that such demands would cause him problems in today’s more precious environment. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there is no doubting the affection, admiration and respect in which he was, and is, held by those now eminent professionals who have been through his hands.

This is the man I met in when I arrived at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in January 1988. In retirement he had been given the job of Surgeon Prosector involving teaching anatomy to students two days a week in term time. I was told on the grapevine that he’d been appointed partly to keep the new Professor of Anatomy in line. That did not augur well for our relationship. Not only did I bridle at the prospect of a restraining hand, but also I doubted that a famous surgeon would be famous for being willing to submit to a 38-year-old pimply youth from Albion.

The country boy from Cumberland met the country boy from Longford. The sport-averse young Englishman met the Arsenal obsessed sagacious Irishman. We loved each other. Harold never once admonished or contradicted me, never once disagreed with anything I said or did. And so I confided in him. He admired my propensity to call a spade a bloody shovel. He loved, nay admired, my intolerance of gobbledygook: ‘we’re right behind you, Stanley’ he’d say grinning widely when I was fulminating about the latest manifestation of jargon-laden managerialism, and his face creased with laughter at what he called my ‘Rabelaisian wit’.

He was not without his own ‘Rabelaisian’ tendencies. In his teaching there poured from him a stream of aphorisms and mnemonics that would certainly have him up before the politically correct thought police today. There was plenty opportunity of course: hernias, breasts, the naughty bits, back passages and so on. A particularly memorable one was his likening the descent of the testis into the scrotum to the Israelites being led to the promised land. And this to a substantially Muslim student body still having wet dreams, or their female equivalent. Did they object? They did not. They regarded him with the same filial affection that he inspired in the rest of us.

I knew only the Father Christmas, teddy bear Harold. And I am so glad I did. My spirit will be at Merrion Church in Ballsbridge on Friday for his obsequies.

2 thoughts on “Farewell, dear friend

  1. May his gentle soul rest in peace. I met this wonderful gentleman as a “mature” 1st year student. And I will admit that I found our first encounter in the dissection room, terrifying. But I soon realised, as did we all, that he was deeply committed to each and every one of us, and to shaping us into the best that we could be. And like you, it did not take long until we grew to admire and to cherish him. How very blessed were we to be taught by the best. And you, too, Prof Monkhouse were the best. I am so thankful. I will remember you fondly in prayer, on Friday.

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