Nowlan, David Shackleton (1936–2010), journalist, critic and medical doctor, was born on 19 May 1936 at 16 Lower Hatch Street, Dublin, the eldest of four children (two boys and two girls) of Revd George Nowlan (1904–74), rector (1935–9) of St Matthias's church, Dublin, and his wife Annie Edith (née McGrath), who were then living at 16 Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin. After attending St Columba's College, Rathfarnham, where he was a Todd scholar, Nowlan entered TCD as a sizar (1954), graduating BA (1958). Enraptured by childhood experiences of the Dublin stage, especially the performances of Maureen Potter (qv) and Jimmy O'Dea (qv), he acted, directed and produced with the Dublin University Players (1954–60), of which he was chairman (1958–60). Nowlan produced revues in Trinity and at the Wexford opera festival (1957–8), and appeared in two plays by Samuel Beckett (qv), 'Endgame' and 'Krapp's last tape', at the TCD Players Theatre (summer 1959) with Art Theatre, a professional company he had co-founded; he was on the organising committee of the University Drama Association Festival (1960). By spring 1961 he was an occasional theatre and film critic for the Irish Times.
During this time, he was studying medicine at TCD, and graduated BAO, B.Ch. and MB (1960). After interning at the Meath Hospital (1960–61), he was registrar at Dr Steevens' Hospital (1961–3), a GP in Bristol (1963), government medical officer in Jamaica (1963–6), and a resident at Southampton Hospital, Long Island, New York (1966–9). While at the latter, he reviewed the New York openings of plays by Brian Friel (qv) and Hugh Leonard (qv) for the Irish Times (1967–8). He also presented a weekly radio programme on health issues. In February 1969 he was appointed medical correspondent of the Irish Times and returned to Dublin. Nowlan had sought to become a theatre critic, but the paper's editor, Douglas Gageby (qv), wanted a versatile and qualified medical writer. A compromise saw Nowlan become the paper's first medical correspondent, while also contributing theatre and film criticism. His medical column, headed 'Medical communication', first appeared on 20 March 1969; he went on to write over 7,000 news stories, opinion pieces, feature articles, columns and film, theatre and book reviews for the paper. (Nowlan later succeeded Seamus Kelly (1912–1979) as chief theatre critic.)
From the start, Nowlan made it clear that his job as medical correspondent was not to answer readers' medical problems. Instead, he addressed a variety of medical issues in their human and social contexts, assessing technological and scientific developments that affected medical and social services, as Ireland sought to modernise clinical services and mental-health provision. Nowlan was generally even-handed in assessing the interests of the medical, nursing and pharmaceutical professions, politicians, and the public in the provision of health services. Interested in the interplay of social deprivation, substance abuse and housing provision, he co-wrote, with Carolyn Swift (qv), Partners in practice, an RTÉ television drama series set in a GP clinic in a Dublin housing estate, which aired in autumn 1971.
He clearly communicated to his readers scientific and medical research findings, especially epidemiological developments in treating cancer and heart disease, and publicised the health benefits of improved diet, exercise, moderation in alcohol and cessation of smoking. His highlighting of the opposition to curbs on the advertising and supply of alcohol, and of the growing evidence of the health risks in consuming saturated fats from animal and dairy products, often annoyed interest groups such as the vintners and agricultural lobbies. Inevitably, there were those who resented being lectured about their health, and Hugh Leonard (usually no admirer of Nowlan's theatre reviews) dubbed him 'Dr Death' in his Sunday Independent column. As the Irish Times's medical correspondent, Nowlan often provided scientific and medical expertise to colleagues, on issues ranging from the use of CS gas in Derry's Bogside in September 1969 to the medical impact of drastic health cuts imposed in 1987. His committed and empathetic writings led to the award of a Glaxo fellowship for EEC science writers (1977).
An avowed humanist and secular liberal, Nowlan in his column advocated the greater availability and use of artificial contraception (which remained under various legal restrictions until 1993). A leading supporter of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) (founded in 1969), he regularly appeared in public debates promoting the medical and social benefits of contraception, scrupulously presenting and assessing relevant clinical evidence and social science research and communicating how other catholic-majority countries managed the issue. He was an interested observer at the London meeting in March 1970 of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and an Irish delegate to their international congress in Finland in August 1973. With other members of the IFPA education committee, Nowlan co-wrote Family planning: a guide for parents and prospective parents (1971), which led Attorney General Declan Costello to initiate a failed prosecution against the IFPA for its distribution (1974). A ban imposed by the censorship of publications board, on the basis that it was 'indecent and obscene', was subsequently overturned by the supreme court (1976). Nowlan joined the IFPA's committee in 1974, acting as a voluntary clinician at their clinics, and was a long-time member of their board. Continually attacked by conservative activists for scrutinising unfounded scientific assertions made by members of the Roman catholic hierarchy through the 1970s, he insisted that 'the degree of availability of contraceptives does not itself influence the incidence of marital breakdown, illegitimacy, venereal disease or abortion' (Ir. Times, 28 May 1979).
Described by his editor Conor Brady as a 'natural-born journalist' (Brady, 30), Nowlan was a skilled writer and editor, noted for his concision and clarity. He became one of Ireland's best-known theatre critics, drawing on his considerable classical and contemporary knowledge of theatre and a cosmopolitan taste. Despite his broad knowledge, he took an unpretentious attitude to criticism, believing his obligation to readers was to 'tell them the story, tell them who's in it, tell them where it's on' (Sunday Independent, 2 January 2011). He was, though, well capable of writing a sharply critical review if he believed it was merited, which could cause quite a stir in the small world of Irish theatre. In general, his relations with most of the theatrical community were cordial, and he was respected for his integrity and fairness.
He held a number of other journalistic posts: news editor of the Irish Medical Journal for a time in the 1970s, and features editor of the Irish Times in the late 1980s, he acted as the latter paper's 'readers' representative' (1989–2000), augmenting the newspaper's 'corrections and clarification' capacity through the 1990s to forestall libel suits and better engage with interested readers. In 1989 Nowlan became managing editor in charge of editorial administration at the Irish Times until his retirement in 2001, a position in which his critical skills, warm manner and managerial élan made him popular with colleagues.
Nowlan married (25 February 1963) Nora Gray, with whom he had three daughters. David and Nora were inseparable, especially enjoying the theatre together. Living in Dún Laoghaire, he listed his recreations as 'theatre, cinema, family, sleep' (ITWW). An avid boater on the river Shannon, he was a representative of the Carrick branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. Nowlan died on 27 December 2010 in Dublin; his funeral took place on 31 December at Mount Jerome crematorium, Harold's Cross, Dublin.