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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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MacMahon, John Stephen (1899–1968)

by G. L. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Stephen MacMahon (1899-1968), surgeon, was born on 17 September 1899 at Cootamundra, New South Wales, third child of Australian-born parents Thomas Patrick MacMahon, solicitor and farmer, and his wife Mary Ellen, née O'Donnell. John attended St Patrick's College, Goulburn, and was dux of the school. After several years running the family farm, he entered the University of Sydney (M.B., Ch.M., 1926). Graduating with first-class honours, he was appointed resident medical officer at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He so impressed his seniors that he was reappointed annually—with increasing seniority—and was deputy medical superintendent in 1932-36. MacMahon displayed rare surgical talent; he also made full use of the opportunities provided by ten years in residence to develop his skills and clinical judgement, and to acquire administrative experience.

In February 1932 MacMahon was elected a fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Granted overseas leave for one year, he studied the latest developments at leading surgical clinics in Britain and Europe (especially in London and Vienna). In December 1932 he was admitted a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, England; he was the first Australian to win the Hallett prize for topping the primary fellowship examination.

On returning to Sydney, MacMahon resumed his post at R.P.A.H., which became his permanent base, and was honorary assistant surgeon (1936-46), honorary surgeon (1946-59), honorary consulting surgeon (1959-68), director (1950-68) and vice-chairman of the board (1962-68). He had a private consulting practice in Macquarie Street, served as a consultant at St Joseph's Hospital, Auburn, and operated regularly at Lewisham Hospital. In 1942-43, as a temporary major in the Militia, he was surgeon at the 102nd Australian General Hospital, Tamworth.

MacMahon had a particular interest in the developing field of thoracic surgery and became consultant to the thoracic unit at the Page Chest Pavilion. None the less, his range was wide: he excelled in abdominal surgery and remained a generalist. His superb technique and rapid, smooth performance of well-planned procedures won the admiration of his colleagues. In classroom teaching he was clear, practical and concise. In the less formal setting of the operating theatre those who studied his methods were well rewarded.

A handsome, athletic man, MacMahon seemed to devote his whole being to surgery, with horses, boxing and rifle-shooting (but little else) for relaxation. He belonged to the Australian Jockey Club. Although he sometimes appeared brusque and curt, those who broke through the barrier he built around himself discovered a friendly but naturally shy man who had his own 'fine, pawky, dry humour'. His marriage to 29-year-old Marie Rita Fagan at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral on 22 May 1948 was followed by a noticeable softening of his manner; he was devoted to his wife and children. He died suddenly of coronary vascular disease on 23 January 1968 at his Vaucluse home and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His wife, daughter and three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 17 Aug 1968, p 331
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Dec 1962, 27 Nov 1965, 24 Jan 1968
  • Royal Australasian College of Surgeons Archives, Melbourne
  • private information.

Citation details

G. L. McDonald, 'MacMahon, John Stephen (1899–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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