Lives of the fellows

James MacWilliam MacGregor

b.17 May 1911 d.5 March 1998
LRCP LRCS Edin LRFPS(1937) DPM(1938) MRCP Edin(1946) MRCP(1948) FRCP(1969) FRCP Edin

James MacGregor was head of the department of neurology at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town, South Africa. He was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Thomas and Eliza MacGregor. He was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, and Aberdeen Grammar School, and graduated from Edinburgh University in 1937. Included somewhere in his undergraduate period was a year as an art student, during which time he acquired a skill and passion for drawing and painting which he retained and developed throughout his life.

After qualifying he held junior appointments in medicine, surgery and psychiatry for two years, obtaining the DPM in 1938. In 1940, during his service in the RAMC, he joined the Oxford Head Injury Hospital. He was appointed as a specialist neurologist and psychiatrist the following year. From 1942 to 1945 he served with a head injury unit in Egypt, India and Burma. On his return to England he was appointed head of the neurological division in Oxford, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In 1948 he became senior registrar at the National Hospital, Queen Square.

For Jim, with his fertile mind and academic interests, this must have been the paradise he had longed for in the later stages of the war. He had married his wife Margaret in 1937, and they had had a daughter, Sue, born while he was away. His professional environment was stimulating and exciting, yet it seems he also yearned for something else. In those otherwise full years he would recall with longing the four sunny days he spent in Cape Town when he was returning to England from Burma.

In 1949 he emigrated to South Africa and commenced practice in neurology and psychiatry. On arrival his part time association with Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town began. It lasted for almost 50 years and included 15 years as head of the department of neurology.

Throughout this period Jim’s skill and enthusiasm enriched the practice and teaching of clinical neurology in the Cape. He brought to his work a very active and critical mind, a remarkable memory, an enviable skill in representing neuro-anatomy, and flashes of merriment which made his enthusiasm even more infectious. Even the most casual student will have left the department with one ineradicable legacy: that of ‘Dr Mac’ leaping over some obstruction between himself and the blackboard with a handful of coloured chalks with which he would depict anatomical localization with luminous clarity.

The veterans equally rejoiced in his anecdotes. His recall of medical literature was astonishing (and accurate), and the notebooks that he filled with neat drawings and increasingly indecipherable handwriting - which did not prevent him from addressing one referring physician as ‘Dear Indecipherable Doctor’ - bear witness to his determination to sift and enjoy new knowledge even in the last months of his life. His clinical practice was characterized by compassion, patience and skill, but he relished too the challenges of neuro-radiology and the demands made on his technical skills when those investigations were performed by neurologists and neuro-surgeons.

Jim’s love of the Cape, born during the brief war-time visit, was fostered by mountain-walking, sketching and painting. These excursions were often in the company of friends who were professional botanists or ramblers who shared his interest. He gained from them a very extensive knowledge of the flowers of the region and in return enriched his companions with greater understanding of the terms they used daily. His approach was epitomized in several articles he published in botanical journals and lectures to the Botanical Society of South Africa on History and myth in the garden, The flowers of the Cape - the stories behind their names and similar topics. These show a breadth of learning of unusual depth, lightened by gems of discovery and wit, and they were clearly as much fun to prepare as they were to read or hear.

Jim’s knowledge of Greek went far beyond its use in science and its relevance to the garden or the countryside. He did not have the facility with it to read Plato with his feet on the fender, but he loved it and derived enormous enjoyment from the painstaking translations he made of selected authors, occasionally illustrated with a marginal gloss or a ground plan of the house of Odysseus. His wide reading in modern literature was much enriched by his affection for the classics.

He was, however, as widely known for his warmth and humour, ever ready to surface spontaneously and enliven a conversation or entertain an expectant audience for half an hour. For me though there was one moment that told of his larger-than-life zest more eloquently than I can convey. We were on his first mountain walk for some years, and the first walk since his wife’s death. He was ecstatic at being in the sun and surrounded by flowers and we went too far. It turned cold and started to rain. The descent was short (as mountains go), but a knee-breaker for the unfit. Jim was exhausted and in pain before we reached the car. Knowing my anxiety as we rested for the umpteenth time, he managed a hoarse whisper: "it’s so good to be alive".

Jim had two daughters, a second daughter, Kirsty, was born in 1950, and three grandchildren. It was always clear that his family was the foundation of his joy.

It was typical of Jim that I should only learn after his death that he was Scottish Universities lightweight (boxing) champion from 1930 to 1932.

Derek Philcox

(Volume XI, page 364)

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