William Maxwell Cowan (‘Max’) was born in 1931 in Johannesburg. His father was a former Glasgow shipyard engineer driven by the imminent closure of the Clyde shipyards to seek employment in the mining industry in South Africa. Max's parents had intended him to be a real–estate lawyer. However, after taking the initial courses in languages, economics and history at Witwatersrand University, a short vacation work period as a trainee nurse in a psychiatric hospital had aroused what was to be his lifelong interest in the workings of the brain. Max decided he wanted to transfer to medical school.