Skip to main content

Dr Edward MacMahon
, 1959

by William Dobell

oil on masonite (frame: 102.3 cm x 93.5 cm, support: 87.0 cm x 73.0 cm)

Edward MacMahon CBE (1904-1987), surgeon, studied medicine at the University of Sydney and completed his residency at the Sydney Hospital before leaving for England. Having obtained a fellowship with the Royal College of Surgeons, he worked at the Woolwich War Memorial Hospital, learning from the eminent surgeon Lawrence Abel. In 1933 he returned to Sydney to take up an appointment at St Vincent’s Hospital. Over his career he was also senior honorary consultant general surgeon at Lewisham and the Mater Misericordiae hospital on the North Shore, where he frequently operated on the poor on Friday nights and was much-loved by the resident Sisters of Mercy. MacMahon had a special interest in operating on cancers, one of his friends recalling that ‘he had a special ability to keep out of trouble surgically, with an uncanny sense of how far matters could be taken safely in a given case.’ He was made a CBE for his services to medicine in 1965.

An avid collector, MacMahon came to know William Dobell after accepting one of his paintings as payment from an impecunious patient. In 1957 Dobell was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and in 1958 MacMahon performed two difficult operations on him. The men spent a lot of time together during Dobell’s convalescence in St Vincent’s, during which period Dobell made a start on MacMahon’s portrait, for which Dobell won his third Archibald Prize, in 1959. ‘Dr MacMahon is an enormous person. I owe everything to him’, said the artist, who was a regular in the doctor’s family circle for the rest of his life.
Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Gift of the MacMahon family in affectionate memory of Edward MacMahon and William Dobell 2015
Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
Accession number: 2015.111