Pioneering sports woman. Born in Edinburgh, McDowell the daughter of a school-master. She was encouraged by an aunt to take up swimming, who bought her a season ticket for Denniston Baths in Glasgow. While on holiday in North Berwick, she was spotted by James McCracken, an Edinburgh swimming teacher and coach who told her father he would make her a world champion. She became a member of Warrender Baths Club in Edinburgh and struggled against the social norms of the time to train and compete at the highest level. McDowell won five Scottish titles for her club and went on to represent Great Britain in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, coming fourth in a very close finish in the 100m freestyle event. She won a bronze medal in the 4×100 yard freestyle relay at the first British Empire Games in Canada in 1930, her team including Ellen King (1909-94) and Cissie Stewart (1911 - 2008). In the 1934 British Empire Games in London, she won a bronze medal in the 100 yard freestyle and another as part of the 110 yard medley relay team.
Following her success in swimming, she took up golf. As Jean Burnett, she became President of the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, Captain of a Curtis Cup team, and Chair of the Ladies Golf Union, which governed women's golf in Britain. She held honorary life membership at Gullane and North Berwick, and was still playing in her ninetieth year.