PFF HQ Staff – Doc MacGown

Sqn.-Ldr. J. C. MacGown, M.D., Ch.B.
Group Medical Officer


Clifford Alabaster “The Group MO was MacGown who gave up his Harley Street practice as an eye specialist to serve in the RAF and came to PFF, where he distinguished himself by flying as a rear gunner on a number of raids, for which he was awarded the DFC. Unique! Doc’ MacGown’s feats were fairly common knowledge.”

A book published in 1947, “Inter-Allied Conferences on War Medicine 1942-45”, edited by Major-General Sir Henry Letheby Tidy, contains an article by MacGown, written in November 1943, which clearly relates to his own experiences of operational flying. Entitled “Night Vision Training and Night Vision in Operational Flying”, it describes night vision in terms which can only come from personal experience.

Other Details of MacGown’s career (our thanks to David Layne, Kyt, and other WWII buffs):

Flight Lieutenant John Cecil MACGOWN, M.D., Ch.B
S/L from 16 December 1941
Mentioned in Despatches 2nd June 1944
Acting Wing Commander J. C. MACGOWN (72766), R.A.F.V.R.
Distinguished Flying Cross. 6th June, 1944
Relinquished commission 10th Feb. 1954

The following details have also been fished up:

Born: March 10, 1896
Educ: Bedford School and Edinburgh University
Served RFC and RAF as pilot and 1916-19
Commodore Hong Kong Flying Club 1935
RAFVR 1939-1945
1945 – 46: OC, various RAF Stations

MacGOWN, John Cecil, Lt., 6964, 2/1 Scot. Horse & RFC; 1 SMA, 16 Oct. 1916; 14 RS, d/u; 1 SAG, d/u; Lt. (Flg. Off.) & to 6 RS, 13 Feb. 1917; 41 Sqdn., 21 Mar. 1917; 1/7 Dest. Alb. 2-seater, 27 May 1917; 1 Dest. Alb. 2-seater, 13 Jun. 1917; ½ Dest. Alb. 2-seater with Lt. C. J. Dickinson over Salient by Roulers, 17 Jun. 1917; shot down by AA & WIA in F.E.8, A4937, captured at Le Chatelet, 7 Jul. 1917; Lt., 1 Apr. 1918; repat. to UK, arr. Dover then sent to POW Reception Camp, Ripon, Yorks., 14 Dec. 1918; to UL, 15 Feb. 1919, att. 41 Sqdn. reunion, 27 Feb. 1937 as Dr. J. C. McGown.


The following information was sent by Clare Macgown in December 2013 – the information was previously on the website of the Callumkill estate, which sadly is no longer in the ownership of the Macgown family.

Macgown history at Callumkill 

Callumkill was purchased by the Macgowns in 1952, when Dr John Cecil Macgown and his wife Marjorie were looking for a place to retire to, and responded to an advertisement in The Times for a small Scottish Estate. They visited Islay and walked up to the top of Callumkill’s first ridge. Apparently they took one look at the view over the fields, ridges and hills and out to the sea beyond and knew they were home. They both lived out the rest of their lives here, becoming a part of the Ileach community. He served on the local Council and as a locum doctor and she worked for community charities. Dr Macgown, or Mac, as he was known, died in 1979 and Marjorie lived on to be the oldest woman in Scotland at the age of 110.


Mac and Marjorie’s history

Mac and Marjorie’s history is, of course, a romantic one.

At the onset of World War 1, Mac interrupted his medical studies at Edinburgh University in 1914 and joined the Scottish Horse Guards. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corp (later to be the RAF) where he became a pilot, flying, amongst other aircraft, the Sopwith Camel (a propeller of which you can see at Callumkill). It is incredible to think that as a teenager he was flying this single-seat fighter biplane, basically made out of wood and fabric, and making sorties all over France and Germany. These brave young pilots would make this journey and then fire on enemy aircraft with a twin machine gun mounted in the cockpit, which was synchronised to fire between the blades of the propellers. It was on one of these sorties that he was shot down over no man’s land. His plane crashed and he lay unconscious until nightfall, badly injured with two bullets through his chest. At night the troops on each side of the trenches would creep out to recover their dead and wounded. Unfortunately in Mac’s case, the enemy got to him first and he was taken prisoner and held at Holzminden. He was given medical treatment by the Germans and recovered. At the first opportunity he escaped from Germany, making his way to Russia, where he was recaptured and sent back to Germany after the Revolution. He then escaped again and made his way, sleeping in fields and foraging for food, all the way to safety in Holland shortly before the end of the war.


You can see here a copy of a telegram sent to his sister during the war in which he talks, as a young cocky teenager, of surviving a crash from 3,000 feet.macgown-first-world-warAfter the war he returned to Edinburgh and finished his medical studies as well as playing rugby for the college and the Barbarians. He later went to Hong Kong, where he set up the only medical practice in the city with three other doctors who had graduated with him from Edinburgh, staying there for 15 years and learning fluent Cantonese. It was here he was to meet his future wife, Marjorie Dakin.

She had worked as a lumberjack on the Welsh borders during the first war, putting on trousers and doing her bit to help in the effort to keep the country running with most of the men away.

After the war she hung up her trousers and put on what she laughingly called her nun’s habit, to train as a nurse in London at the Royal London Hospital (where her grandson Malcolm also did part of his medical training). When she finished her training, she decided she wanted to travel and was offered positions in Hong Kong and Brazil. When I asked her why she chose Hong Kong, she wistfully said “I just thought it sounded more romantic”. And it was – one night while working on a maternity case a young doctor arrived to attend to the birth. She said he walked through the door and she thought to herself “He’ll do”. It was, of course, Mac.

They were married on 1 September 1927 in Shanghai and stayed in Hong Kong for the birth of their three children, only returning to Britain in 1935, getting out just before the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. They enjoyed a remarkable life in a time gone by there, racing their horse, Sunburst Rose at FanLing and were members of the St Andrew’s Society. Mac was on the Sanitary Board, the Hongkong Volunteer Defence Corps, and the Medical Board.  You can see photos of this time at Callumkill and much of the furniture and the decoration are from their Hong Kong days.


Mac practiced in Lincolnshire and Wimpole Street until the outbreak of World War II when he felt it was his duty, this time as a white haired man in the 40’s, to rejoin the RAF and help in the war effort. He had an unusual multifaceted role as chief medical officer, pilot and navigator of the Pathfinders, the division that flew Lancaster bombers on night missions over Germany. He flew in 47 missions, more than any other pilot, and indeed over double the number of flights required of any pilot before he was officially able to retire. He flew on this many missions for a number of reasons, but mainly because he knew as the war progressed that the young pilots considered it good luck to fly with him. This was a man who had survived two wars, and if you flew with the Doc you were sure to come home. If a crew had had a bad flight, Mac would make sure he joined them on the next to reassure and to calm any jitters. It was his responsibility to ensure that the crews were fit to fly, mentally and physically. He also became a night vision specialist while serving, publishing a respected paper on the subject and inventing an ingenious piece of equipment to help navigators distinguish between decoy and real targets on the ground.

He was awarded the DFC for his service in the War.

After the war, remembering all the unemployed “heroes” after WW1, he helped found the Pathfinder Association, which was set up specifically to help ex-Pathfinders find work and stability after the war. He lobbied employers to hire veterans and became the associations first President. It had incredible success and was eventually disband when they had found every single veteran sustained work. A remarkable achievement.

He worked for a time then as chief medical officer for British South American Airways, the British national airway set up to cover routes to South America and the Caribbean, flying many times to South America to review amongst other things, passenger safety. The airline was sold to BOAC in 1949 and shortly after this he and Marjorie retired to Islay and Callumkill.

They were both active in the community, Mac became a local councillor and is credited with, amongst other things, bringing the first street lights to Islay. He also worked as a locum for Islay doctors and continued his ophthalmic work for islanders. The back bedroom at Callumkill was his “surgery” and was full of eyeglasses, eye testing devices and other unidentifiable objects – some of which we hoped were for animals rather than humans!

Mac’s last days were spent at Callumkill enjoying drams with friends, especially Tony Diviani, whose house was in Lagavulin and easily arrived at down the front steps at Callumkill and through the 20 acre field, for a wee dram of an evening. He loved the farm, stalking red deer on the hill, and rough shooting.

Marjorie survived her husband by almost 30 years and was a remarkable woman to the end, and there are many lovely stories to be heard about her on the island. For example she was still doing meals on wheels for the elderly into her 90’s and she was still driving around in her little red car until the age of 102. She is still remembered by mechanics all over the island for needing a new clutch every few months as she was so deaf she would rev the engine loudly before setting off, going in second gear throughout her journey. Mostly however she was known for her strength and kindness.

Her great joy was walking on Callumkill and she would set off with her dog Angus and a parcel of food, and stay out all day on the hill. This grew less and less over the years,  but even into her 100’s she would walk down the lane as far as the entrance, where a little stool was hammered into the fence for her to rest.

An incident illustrating Marjorie’s tough resilience and survival qualities occurred when she was already a centenarian. One day, when Marjorie was out walking with Angus, they were passing a group of cows with calves when one cow, protective of her offspring, made an aggressive move towards the dog. As a warning gesture,  Marjorie shook her stick at the cow. It responded by butting her, first knocking her to the ground and then butting her again, it lifted her up and over the standard 5-bar aluminium gate. She cleared the gate completely and landed on the track just off the hard road. Thankfully the cows remained on the other side. Amazingly,  Marjorie  suffered  only minor cuts and bruises from which she rapidly recovered, soon resuming her much-loved walks.