Health science pays homage to leading light

17 November 2003

Memories: Dr Robin Brown did the ceremonial honours when the Faculty of Health Sciences opened a reading room in tribute to his aunt, Dr Helen Brown.

The Faculty of Health Sciences saluted the life and work of Dr Helen Annan Brown, who served at UCT for nigh on 50 years, when it opened a reading room in her honour in the Medical School library in early November.

The Helen Brown Reading Room pays homage to a physician and teacher who inspired countless medical students - she taught more than 5 000 students during her time at the university - and specialists, as well as a procession of academic leaders, said Professor Ralph Kirsch, head of the Department of Medicine and a former student and colleague of Brown's, at the opening.

"Her brilliant clinical acumen, linked with enormous practical experience, up-to-date theoretical knowledge, and a highly-innovative approach to difficult diagnoses made her one of the faculty's most distinguished role models," noted Kirsch.

The daughter of UCT's Alexander Brown, professor of applied mathematics, Brown completed her MBChB with honours at the university in 1935. After her internship at Somerset Hospital and stints at the Peninsula Maternity Hospital and UCT's Department of Pathology, she spent some time in the United Kingdom, serving at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London and, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Blood Transfusion Service in Slough.

Brown returned to South Africa - and UCT - in 1942, joining the Department of Medicine, where she would stay until her retirement in 1991. Over this period, she opened the first blood bank at Groote Schuur Hospital, and cemented her reputation as a learned and innovative physician and teacher.

"She was economical in all that she said and did and at the same time indefatigable and uncompromising in her personal efforts," recalled Kirsch. So, for example, when treating those with tetanus, a disease that demands regular surveillance (she insisted on four-hourly checks), Brown took it on herself to do the 04h00 watch.

In addition, her interests in fields other than medicine - she was a voracious reader, an accomplished pianist and violinist, and an acclaimed amateur Egyptologist - also impacted on her students. "Her love of books inspired her students to see their medical work in a broader context," observed Kirsch.

"Her colleagues and students hope that her continued presence in this room will encourage both the discipline and the joy of learning."

Brown's sister-in-law Diana Brown, niece Wendy Bertie and nephew Dr Robin Brown, as well as a score of UCT scholars and staff, were among those at the official opening of the reading room.

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