Lives of the fellows

Peter Knight McCowan

b.3 September 1890 d.11 March 1979
MB ChB Edin(1912) DPM(1921) MD(1922) MRCP(1923) FRCP(1934) Hon FRCPsych(1971) Barrister-at-law(1930) JP

After a brief illness, Peter McCowan died at the age of eighty-eight, a patient in a teaching hospital of his University. He was born in Perth, and after graduation he, like so many of his generation, spent some time in general practice, and then as a major in the RAMC, before he entered the specialty which he was to advance greatly.

His first eight years in psychiatry, from 1920, were spent with the LCC hospital service. His early achievement, and his promise, were recognized by his appointment in 1928 as physician superintendent of Cardiff City Mental Hospital and lecturer in the Welsh National School of Medicine. McCowan was no stranger to research — he was a Bronze Medallist of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association in 1926 - and in Wales his biochemical interests found considerable support.

It was however in clinical and administrative psychiatry that his talent was to find its most complete expression. In 1937 the directors of the Crichton Royal Hospital appointed him as their physician superintendent. At that time Crichton’s wealthy endowment and clinical facilities could probably have attracted any candidate; McCowan’s subsequent career showed the wisdom of his selection. His twenty years in Dumfries spanned a period of great expansion in active psychiatric treatment, and his creative energy and foresight exploited this to the full. The hospital’s intake of patients from all over Britain and beyond expanded fivefold, and its reputation reached its zenith under his direction.

In the second world war McCowan was again commissioned, in the rank of lieutenant colonel, and over two thousand officers were treated in the Crichton Military Hospital. He had a remarkable capacity to discern early, and to foster, every growing point in psychiatric practice, whether this were child psychiatry, clinical psychology, or whatever. The productive research departments he instituted, under W Mayer-Gross and J Raven, commanded at their peak resources not equalled by some university departments.

His contribution was not only parochial. He held important offices in the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, largely concerned with study and research, and his fostering of high professional standards played its distant part in the ultimate transformation of that body into the Royal College of Psychiatrists. His service to the RMPA was recognized in 1951 by his election to its presidency.

In former days, the position of physician superintendent of a good hospital was perhaps the peak of any psychiatric career. It lent itself, obviously, to accusations of autocracy and paternalism. McCowan was a curious autocrat; one who welcomed the collaboration, and indeed enjoyed the opposition, of figures of equal distinction; who gave his ambitious younger colleagues encouragement and freedom; who, when his power was trammelled by administrative and legal changes, still attained his objectives by subtle political judgement; and who liked nothing better than a game of bowls with his nurses and tradesmen. He was a masculine and gregarious man, and if his wit was often caustic it was usually tempered by a jovial chuckle.

He married Gladys Nunn in 1917, and had two daughters, one a doctor. After the death of his first wife, he married in 1933 Muriel Northcote, herself a distinguished psychiatrist, who also pre-deceased him.

AC Tait

[, 1979, 1, 1026; Bull. roy. Coll. Psychiat., July 1979]

(Volume VII, page 354)

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