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Browne, Sir Denis John Wolko (1892–1967)

by F. Douglas Stephens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Denis John Wolko Browne (1892-1967), paediatric surgeon, was born on 28 April 1892 at Toorak, Melbourne, second son of native-born parents Sylvester John Browne (d.1915), gentleman, and his wife Anne Catherine, daughter of Sir William Stawell. Denis was a nephew of T. A. Browne, better known as 'Rolf Boldrewood', and of (Sir) Richard Stawell. Sylvester was involved in mining at Broken Hill; after severe losses, he left his family in Melbourne and went in 1892 to Coolgardie, Western Australia, where he remade his fortune.

In 1901 the family moved to Minembah, a station in the Hunter River valley near Singleton, New South Wales. Denis was educated privately in Melbourne and at Minembah before he boarded (1905-10) at The King's School, Parramatta. Awarded a Burton exhibition to St Paul's College, University of Sydney (M.B., 1914), he won Blues for shooting and tennis; he also excelled at billiards, golf and horsemanship (breaking horses to augment his finances). Denis was 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall, with brown hair and green eyes; extra long at birth, he had been given the Aboriginal name 'Wolko', meaning 'big man'. Called 'splinter Browne' as a student, in later life he was to be affectionately known as 'D.B.'

On 26 March 1915 he was appointed captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps, Australian Imperial Force. From September he was regimental medical officer with the 13th Light Horse Regiment at Gallipoli. Evacuated in November with typhoid fever, he was invalided to Australia. In August 1916 Browne arrived in France and next month was posted to the 12th Field Ambulance; he was promoted major in April 1917 and served on the Western Front until July 1918. That month he joined the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital, Dartford, England. His exceptional surgical ability was noted and he was granted leave in 1919 to gain experience under the orthopaedic surgeon Sir Robert Jones at the Royal Southern Hospital, Liverpool. Browne resigned his A.I.F. commission on 28 December, then worked in the Middlesex and London hospitals.

A fellow (1922) of the Royal College of Surgeons, England, Browne soon became resident medical superintendent at The Hospital for Sick Children, Great Ormond Street, London. At the Catholic Cathedral, Ashley Place, on 21 April 1927 he married an Australian novelist Helen de Guerry Simpson; she shared with him a love of riding, acting, history and politics, and introduced him to literary circles. Helen died in 1940, leaving a daughter Clemence.

Consultant surgeon at Great Ormond Street from 1928, Browne was noted for his skill, his original thinking and for his many contributions to surgical literature. He devised a simple, sound technique for the repair of cleft palate and hare-lip, advocated 'controlled movement' in treating talipes and congenital dislocation of the hip, and clarified diagnosis of undescended testes and of imperforate anus. In addition, he was a pioneer of neonatal surgery who advocated the need for special skills in managing and nursing children. Fascinated by technique, he designed instruments for operating on babies and young children, and splints that allowed controlled movement. His tremendous technical skill sometimes distracted attention from his more important achievements.

On 10 December 1945 at the registry office, Chelsea, Browne married Lady Moyra Blanche Madeleine Ponsonby, 24-year-old daughter of the 9th Earl of Bessborough. A trained nurse, she was to become vice-president (1970-85) of the Royal College of Nursing and superintendent-in-chief, St John Ambulance Brigade.

As his experience and stature rapidly grew in and beyond Britain, Browne developed a worldwide reputation which attracted many young surgeons from the British Isles and from overseas to study in his clinic at Great Ormond Street. He travelled widely, lecturing and operating, he received honorary memberships of a multitude of professional societies and he held Hunter professorships four times (1947, 1949-51). His contributions spanned the surgery of childhood, both in practical methods of treatment and in the causes of congenital abnormalities. Typically, he read a paper to the Royal Society of Medicine on Byron's lameness, 'based on a careful study of the appliance the poet wore'.

Browne was an imposing figure, always well dressed, and appeared somewhat haughty, but he was compassionate with children. Maddened 'by any suffering or disfigurement that he thought remediable', he was forthright and rather intolerant of those who did not share his views and aspirations, especially on the rapidly evolving specialty of paediatric surgery after World War II. His strong leadership—supported by like-minded younger colleagues whom he had trained—resulted in the establishment of the British Association of Paediatric Surgeons, of which he was foundation president in 1953-57. The association flourished and became a major forum for disseminating new ideas and for teaching surgery of the foetus, new born babies and children. The Denis Browne medal, the highest award of the association, was struck in his honour.

In 1957 Browne was awarded the Royal College of Surgeons' Dawson Williams prize and the American Academy of Pediatrics' William E. Ladd memorial medal. He retired from The Hospital for Sick Children that year, but continued to practise in Harley Street. In 1961 he was appointed K.C.V.O. by Queen Elizabeth II and to the Légion d'honneur by the French government. He visited and lectured in Australia in 1965; the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons elected him an honorary fellow, the highest honour the college could bestow. In January 1967 he succeeded as president of the International College of Surgeons.

Among his other appointments, Browne was a member (1952-56) of the British Broadcasting Corporation's general advisory council and chairman of the medical group of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. He belonged to the Garrick Club. Unusually widely read, with a rather cynical sense of humour, he loved the country and shot regularly (with guns he had modified, just as he had played tennis with a circular racquet). Sir Denis died on 9 January 1967 at his home in Wilton Street, Westminster. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, and by the daughter of his first marriage, he was buried with Anglican rites at Stansted Park, Rowlands Castle, Hampshire, after a service in the Bessboroughs' private chapel. An obituarist in The Times wrote:

Whichever of his various talents he was exploiting—playing tennis at Wimbledon, lecturing students at home or pundits abroad, coping with a baby's cleft lip or club foot—he gave everything he had, with towering energy.

Select Bibliography

  • H. H. Nixon, et al, Selected Writings of Sir Denis Browne (Farnborough, Eng, 1983) and for publications
  • P. P. Rickham (ed), Progress in Pediatric Surgery (Heidelberg, Germany, 1986)
  • British Medical Journal, 21 Jan 1967, p 178, 25 Feb 1967, p 508
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 May 1965
  • Times (London), 10, 27 Jan 1967
  • B. K. Rank, citation on presentation of Sir Denis Browne for Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, 17 May 1965 (typescript, RACS Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

F. Douglas Stephens, 'Browne, Sir Denis John Wolko (1892–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-sir-denis-john-wolko-9603/text16931, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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