Lives of the fellows

Frank McLaren McGown

b.1 September 1915 d.8 December 2006
MB BChir Cantab(1939) MRCS LRCP(1939) MRCP(1946) MD(1951) FRCP(1969)

Frank McGown worked as a consultant physician at Oldchurch Hospital, Romford, and St George's Hospital, Hornchurch, from 1954 until his retirement in 1981. Born in Belfast, he was educated in England and studied medicine at Clare College, Cambridge. He moved to the London Hospital for his clinical studies, qualifying in 1939 and working there as a house officer during the Blitz.

He volunteered for and served in the RNVR for the rest of the Second World War. During 1941 he made over 25 crossings of the North Atlantic, followed by a journey as surgeon lieutenant on a destroyer delivered to Turkey via the Cape of Good Hope. From there he was appointed to serve on an old China gunboat, sailing regularly between Alexandria and Tobruk. In late 1943 he was tending casualties from the North African campaigns at a naval hospital in Alexandria. Back in UK in 1944, he was sent to the Normandy beaches as medical officer on a French vessel anchored off Sword Beach two days after D-Day, where he narrowly missed a fatal encounter with an enemy shell. He was recommended for accelerated promotion, and finished his war service at a naval hospital in Fareham with the rank of surgeon lieutenant commander.

After demobilisation he passed the MRCP examination, and became first assistant to Sir Alun Rowlands [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.507] at the London Hospital in 1946. In 1950, after a short spell as a junior at the Brompton Hospital, he was appointed senior registrar to Ronald Green [Munk’s Roll, Vol.X, p.177] at Paddington General Hospital (associated with St Mary's Hospital). In 1951 his thesis on ‘Ascites in heart failure’ was accepted for the award of a Cambridge MD. Three years later he was appointed as a consultant at Oldchurch and St George’s.

Inspired by his contacts with Sir George Pickering [Munk’s Roll, Vol.VII, p.464] at St Mary's Hospital, and stimulated by Harold Himsworth's [Munk’s Roll, Vol.IX, p.238] post-war report on postgraduate education, Frank conceived the idea of a local dedicated hospital postgraduate centre at Oldchurch, for junior hospital doctors, consultants and local general practitioners. In 1954 Oldchurch Hospital, an old workhouse, still evinced lingering features of a vanishing era of municipal hospitals. John Tallack was already working there as a junior, and has described what he discovered when he enquired whether there was a hospital library. "I found a tiny, gloomy, dusty room with a bare bulb hanging on its flex from the ceiling, a bare table, a couple of kitchen chairs, six very obsolete books, and about 30 copies of The Lancet. I do not know when the place had last been entered." Frank's ideas met with an aloof reception from many of his colleagues, but not from the neurosurgeon, Bernard Fairbum, who shared his enthusiasm and became a stalwart supporter of his efforts. By nature shy and gentle, Frank was also courageous and persistent. In Fairburn's own words, "Frank put his head down and pushed and pushed. He wouldn't accept 'no' for an answer. He persuaded all the consultant staff to subscribe, then turned to the local GPs, and then wrote hundreds of letters to prospective donors." His efforts were crowned by the opening of the academic medical centre at Oldchurch Hospital in 1967. It was one of the first of its kind in a district hospital. Though modest in size, it soon became a centre of excellence, with Frank as its clinical tutor, and attracted increasing numbers of applicants for junior posts, especially as the hospital, the second largest and busiest in its region, included units for neurosurgery, radiotherapy and infectious diseases.

During his time as consultant physician at Oldchurch he developed a special interest in gastro-enterology. He served on a variety of local and regional committees including the North East Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board, and he was for a while the consultant member of the district management team. He was an active supporter of the Royal Society of Medicine in the days when clinical cases were eagerly discussed at regular evening meetings. He had an enduring concern for the welfare of his juniors, and strove to forge close links with the London Hospital. Fittingly enough, by mutual consent, the job description of his successor as consultant physician and gastro-enterologist included sessions at the London Hospital.

To mark his retirement in 1981, he was uniquely honoured by an afternoon of scientific papers delivered by five of his former registrars, all of them by then holding consultant posts. The event showed the warmth of esteem and affection felt for him, and the memory of it brought him great pleasure for the rest of his life. A colleague said of him at the time, "He has contributed more to the welfare of Oldchurch Hospital than any other individual. He is a good physician, friend, committee man and academic." All who knew him are agreed that he was the most modest and honourable of men, never known to raise his voice in anger, wise in counsel, and possessed of an endearingly and disarmingly quizzical smile.

Soon after finishing at Oldchurch, Frank endured a long febrile illness, probably Bornholm disease. He suggested the diagnosis himself. After recovering, he enjoyed the many years of his retirement at his home in Stondon Massey, Essex, living out his Christian beliefs as a faithful supporter of the village church and as its churchwarden for almost 20 years. He also assisted the Friends of Essex Churches in evaluating church projects for grants.

Frank's interests included sailing, organising Sea Scouts and medical lectures for the Royal Naval Supplementary Reserve, and Byzantine art. He also enjoyed the study of church architecture, calligraphy and sketching. He married Pamela in 1954, whom he had met a year earlier when she was a house physician at Paddington Hospital. Both her parents were missionary doctors in China, and her father, Alexander James Watson, was later medical superintendent of Mildmay Mission Hospital, Hackney. Frank and Pamela had four children: Hugh, who died in 1973, Donald, Judith and Anne (the latter is now a consultant physician).

John Billinghurst

[Brit.med.J.,2007,334,857]

(Volume XII, page web)

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