Interview of Dr. Norah Browne


Dr. Norah Browne (1917-2010), a pediatrician in St. John's, is credited with establishing the Newfoundland Hearing Association (NHA), which later became a Provincial Chapter of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association (CHHA). A tribute to Dr. Browne is posted on the organization’s website at A scholarship has been created in her honour.

Interview with Dr. Norah Browne

Interviewer:  Okay so we’re talking about the last time from the 1970’s and 80’s and your involvement in the disability community, in the 70’s. You founded the Hard of Hearing Association.  

Norah: Yes I did, yes actually the odd thing was, it was the same week the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association began the National one.  I didn’t know anything about it at that time and we happened to start at the same time, so it was the same week.  We heard about them, I don’t know how we heard about them but it was very obvious, we became a member right away, which is lovely because it was part of a national body, it was just beginning to grow.  There was one group first of all and very quickly we got more and more groups going all over, every province.

Interviewer:  And when was that?  

Norah:  Well, first it was a group of the association; the association was the National Association and started with the national association and now how about getting groups everywhere.  And so we had been the first group because we started already.  And so we became their first group and then I did quite a bit of traveling and getting people to start other groups as elsewhere.  I didn’t do that for very long, we had so many people so enthused, we got all sorts of people to go all over the country and establish new groups.

Interviewer:  Were there any women involved in this?  

Norah: Quite a few of us actually. 

Interviewer:  How did you encourage other women?

Norah:  Well, I just told them what we were doing and everyone is so excited about it because the hard of hearing then had very little going for them.  In a way, [name unclear] was here, she had one absolutely excellent person and is still here and her name, ah, I’ve got a memory like a sieve now.  Anyway she is still here; she is still working in audiology.  And she was absolutely excellent; she helped start other groups in the province.

Interviewer:  And now to speak a little bit about the Women’s Movement.  How has your work improved the lives of other women?

Norah:  I think because when I started here 40 years ago as a pediatrician, I got my exams, about 40 years I started working as a pediatrician and there were not really many women working in professions at that time, comparatively few.  And less, there were, I think, I’m not quite sure how many it was, maybe up to 5 anyway, other women in the province, pediatricians.  But they weren’t doing general work; they were doing more work in the school and that kind of thing which was fine.  But there weren’t many at all for the general population.  And so now there were, I knew of only one or two trained audiologists, you know, who do the tests and things in Newfoundland.  Two in St. John’s and maybe one or two elsewhere.  But only two had been properly trained Sensors and most of the others had just gone and said we work in audiology, without any training.  So I think some of them became quite good, as long as they didn’t think they knew it all.  The ones who knew they didn’t know it all, set about trying to know more.  And then we got audiology sensor training here in St. John’s, eventually.  Of course, we advanced from there; audiologists are good and very well trained.

Interviewer:  What was it like for you as a woman working in medicine, a field dominated mostly by men?

Norah:  Rather oddly, I had no problem.  I qualified in England in 1943, in the War and I came to Newfoundland for 3 months, that was in 1961 as it were, and it was for 3 months.  And we were discussing one day, you know how, when I would leave because obviously we had to make some arrangements at least where some of my work was going, so no other audiology specialists, what I was anyway, doctors with training.  And I had an accident and fell down some stairs and banged the back of my neck, but happily I didn’t destroy my spinal cord.  I couldn’t move my arm and leg for a short while, I don’t know how long, some days I think.  So gradually everything came back again.  I don’t notice any difference in one side or the other at all.  But the doctors examined me really well.  Anyway, because of all of that I stayed and my job in England had been kept for a year, but I wasn’t well enough to go back until the year was over so my job was taken and I stayed here and I married - that was another reason for staying.

Interviewer:  So you had no problem really with being a doctor.

Norah:  I never had any problem anywhere.  There was one doctor who disliked women doctors, for the life of me I can’t remember where or when, but there was, I remember that and he just didn’t like women doctors, he thought that was wrong and couldn’t possibly be good doctors and they should be washing the dishes. I was used to doing both actually.  I think that was here actually, but I’m really not quite sure, my memory is really not quite as good as it used to be.  As I get older, I seem to lose a little memory every year. 

Interviewer:  In the 70’s and the 80’s you had founded the Hard of Hearing Association right?

Norah:  Yes, it was 1963, I think, it was about 40 years ago.

Interviewer:  Can you think of anything specific in the 1970’s and 80’s that you were involved with, committees?  

Norah:  I was involved in quite a lot of committees; I can’t remember what they were all called.  I know I was involved with one for seniors.  I think it was the Senior Resource Center; because I was deeply involved with them.  That had nothing to do with the Hard of Hearing; it was a general thing and still is.  And I’m still involved with it, a very minimal bit.  In fact, I think tomorrow I’m going to an annual luncheon or something or other. 

Interviewer:  You were always involved with the Hard of Hearing Association throughout your life?

Norah:  Oh yes throughout, mainly involved in that.  I go to things, like annual meetings and special events.  And they come and fetch me.

Interviewer:  And did you, were you taking care of the family in a sense, during the 70’s and 80’s, as well as working?

Norah:  The 70’s and 80’s, I was involved with children, very much so, but not necessarily with the whole family except with if you must extended, you were involved with any member of a family.  But I was also doing a lot of teaching, other people’s children, doing what I was doing.  I knew I wouldn’t last all that time, I was getting on then, well I can’t remember exactly.  I’m almost 89 and so you know I was obviously getting on and I needed to pass it to other people and teach them what I knew and what to do.  So I did a lot of that and I traveled over the province doing that and giving lectures and things.

Interviewer:  And what were the lectures on?

Norah:  Hearing loss and I don’t think people realize the enormous amount of it there is.  Of course I’m not sure what the percentage of people, of population who have hearing loss.  But unfortunately it’s increasing because young children start making awfully noisy music and it actually damages their hearing.  And so a lot of young adults now have some degree of hearing loss.  The trouble is, that often once it’s started, it tends to increase even if the causes of it have gone.  And I think I get the sense it is now, that something horrific at the age of 40; I would say at least 50% of the population has some degree of hearing loss.  It may not worry them at that stage, but once it’s started, it will go on.  It’s something they’re trying to work on now in the schools particularly, and in the welfare clinics they are teaching parents about noise and that sort of thing. 

Interviewer:  So that sounds like a big accomplishment to be teaching others about this.  Can you think of anything else that would be an accomplishment for yourself?

Norah:  Oh I don’t think of it as an accomplishment, it was something I was involved in and felt rather strongly about.  I’ve been hard of hearing most of my life.  I knew it was rather difficult sometimes.  I think people are really being taught it now, teachers particularly are being taught about hearing loss and how to recognize it in school and that kind of thing.  The trouble about it is, it looks awfully like either mental retardation, or laziness sometimes.  So kids get rather short shifted but now that’s one of the things they test for, I think at 3 months as part of the usual tests that are done.  They test hearing and intelligence and all that sort of thing.  And then again when they are 2 years when they test it because you can test it better then because usually help you a bit you know, when they realize what you are doing.  And in pre-school here it is tested properly you know, hearing equipment and so forth.   No child should ever go into school now hard of hearing without it being dealt with whatever way it needs.

Interviewer:  What are some areas of passion that you have around equality issues?

Norah:  Male and Female?

Interviewer:  Sure, or disability, ethnic, culture, age.

Norah:  I think that boys and girls develop at different rates and different things; they’re going through quite a lot of differences.  Usually at around puberty, girls go ahead much faster than boys in what they can do.  But the boys seem to hang back a bit at the age of, whatever the age is, I’m not sure now, between 10 and 12, that sort of age.  The boys hang back, the girls progress more quickly, academically very often but also socially.  And with the boys, even now expect, I’m not really involved now in human relations.  Girls seem to grow up socially more quickly than boys I think, it seems to be a natural thing.  But by the time they’re 15 and 16, they’re probably young adults almost now, when it used to be 20 or 21.  I think, the ages have changed very much because people live longer and they’re very much more capable for a longer time than they used to.  And it is possible that at the age of 65, instead of retiring age, it really is far too early for most people now.  You mightn’t think so now, they often would like to go on working and they have a job where they got to stop but a lot of them would like to go on working.  They don’t feel ready to retire.  Now people will find, who’s got other interests, that men particularly, a lot of them don’t have any other interests than their work and their family.  Women often do, they’re much more likely to anyway, so I think they’re better off than men in a way when they, if they have to retire.  Women are luckier than men.

Interviewer:  How did you empower other women or help them find their voices in the 70’s and the 80’s?

Norah:  Speaking, you mean.  Maybe their voice heard about the things they want and need, is that right?  I think by doing it myself, I did a lot of speaking, public speaking in groups that knew I was doing this sort of thing so asked me and it wasn’t only women’s groups, it was men groups, like the Positive Thinkers Association or Club, they were mostly men, but they asked me to speak and they made me a member.  And so we got more women and that kind of thing.  I did quite a bit of kind of promoting women because I was able to promote things I knew about, you know, I could talk about things I knew about and so I got it out to quite a lot of people.  And I found men on the whole were fairly accepting of it, a few were not, but that’s the way still I think.

Interviewer:  What do you think are some things that need to change? 

Norah:  Attitudes, I think that a lot of people are very selfish.  I think that, not surprising because it’s a very competitive world now and for men particularly, because the women are into it as well, almost as much as the men.  And you will always get some men who I think understandably still feel rather the old fashioned way, that women’s place is in the home you know and not out of it.  More and more men are taking part in the domestic side of family life, I think to everyone’s advantage.  I don’t know what you think.  But I feel that men need to be involved in things that go on at home and instead of just having their breakfast, going out to work, coming home, having a lovely rest while Mom gets the dinner, having dinner and then you know maybe going out to a meeting or something.  I think they’re getting more domesticated now and enjoying it too. 

Interviewer:  What motivated you to step out of the traditional role of a woman in the 70’s and the 80’s?  It might be difficult to pinpoint the 70’s and 80’s.

Norah:  Not really, I was here.  I came here in 1961.  I worked for 3 months and had an accident and in hospital in Montreal for a long time.  And the time it was finished, it had been a year, I had been in Canada a year and my job in England was only being kept for me for a year, so I lost it.  So I hadn’t much alternative but to stay here and I thought they wanted me back in Corner Brook actually.  And I was able to take the pediatrics, the Canadian Pediatrics Exams and I had done enough pediatrics to allow me to do that without any further work.  Besides I had already worked for quite awhile in Canada and so I was able to get [certified], so to speak.  So I just decided to stay then.  And I wanted to come to St. John’s.  I had ideas about pediatrics, and I knew that there were pediatricians in St. John’s, I think there were 5, they were all working, except for one who was working with another pediatrician, as assistant.  The other, 3, 4 or 5, whichever it was, were working for the government, some government job, probably doing school examinations and that kind of thing.  And so it seemed to me they needed join the general company of doctors and pediatricians and do any of the work that they did.  I didn’t seem to have any trouble with that at all, it was just rather [different] to some of them.  But one or two of them approved mightily, one who visits me here still, he’s still alive [though] most of them are dead now.  I’ve survived most of them.  Well I’m almost 89.  And people seem to die before that age, men particularly.  The thing I do notice, is medicine is changing a lot of ways, I imagine routine family practice is probably changing, I don’t know, but certainly specialties are.  They are getting more and more and more specialized and I don’t think you can say it’s a good thing or a bad thing.  In some ways its probably a very good thing, you know, you have people who are really top notch in certain areas in medicine.  And yet you get too top notch, you forget what the other doctors are doing.  I think this half way [point] is probably good.

Interviewer:  What work do you think still needs to be done in women’s movement, and in the disability community, the hard of hearing?

Norah: I don’t think it makes much difference if you’re a man or a woman.  I think that [medicine] is getting sophisticated enough in this area to be aware that you must examine every infant for a hearing loss and continue to do so, at regular, well the usual routine [examinations] up to school age.  And when they get their pre-school exam, that is an absolute must if you got a hearing loss test, or see if they have any hearing loss.  And I believe, I believe they checked every year, but I wouldn’t be sure if that.  I know it’s checked pretty commonly.  And if a child, who started quite well in school begins to do badly, as well as things you look for, one is hearing loss. It’s quite common, sometimes only temporary but hearing loss is unfortunately getting more and more common.  Partly due to the noise in the modern world and traffic noise is above danger level.  It’s shocking to think of that and then people have their radio on, TV, very, very loud.  Mom’s working in the kitchen but she wants to listen to a TV program, so it’s very, very loud.  And maybe the others are sitting in that room are getting used to having noises changed and loud, naturally happening, and traffic noise.  And an aeroplane engine starting off is far above the danger level. 

Interviewer:  If you could have one wish for women’s equality, what would it be?

Norah:  Well, I will say this, men and women are different, they can’t treated as equal in everything.  But I think equality is to have the chance to do any kind of work they wish to that a man does.  And I suppose it still happens, I can’t swear to this because I really don’t know, but I think that probably you’ll find that some want to have, say, 10 pediatricians in an area, it’s unlikely, but there are more men chosen than women, even if there are an equal number of men and women that go into it.  I think more men likely were shortlisted.  Now that’s only what I suspect is happening.  But I haven’t followed it very much in the last 2 or 3 years, there were quite a lot of discrimination in those days.  I didn’t think about anything at all. And things change so I’m not involved, I don’t see quite so clearly what’s going on, even when people tell you.  I think that women probably do not have an equal chance because you will always have times where they said you haven’t got any children, are you married, have you got any children.  Well how do you expect to be able to work and look after your children?  That’s quite a common thing to be asked, still I believe.  And you’ll always get some, the majority, who will say well of course women can’t do as well as men because they’ve got 2 jobs, you can’t do it.  I think there’s less of that now, as far as I can understand.  That’s the way it should be I think.  I think you want to get a person for any job at all, doctors, nurses, anything you like, who you think is going to be good at that job or best at that job of the people applying.  But also who says that they would be capable of doing it despite the fact that they got a family, they can still look after their family, because you can.  You may have to choose your jobs a bit that you apply for.  But you can have a family and look after them appropriately and do the job, it is possible.

Interviewer:  That’s all the questions I had unless you wanted to add something.

Norah:  Not really. 

Interviewer:  Thanks very much.