Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1995



T. M. Macdonnell, M. D. COUNTRY DOCTOR

by Robert Gilmore




"His pace is fast, his hours long, for he's a man dedicated to service."

That was how the May, 1959 issue of The Missouri Farmer described country doctor T. M. Macdonnell, M.D. It's now more than 35 years later, and Dr. Tommy has neither slowed his pace nor cut back on his hours. And his four terms in the Missouri State Legislature as Democratic representative from the 140th District suggest no diminution of his commitment to service.

The 71-year-old Macdonnell may, however, be about ready to ease off a bit. He has sold his medical clinic in Marshfield and is not running tor reelection to the legislature. It's unlikely that the rocking chairs in his gracious country home just west of Marshfield in Webster County, Missouri will get much use, but his prize Herefords should now expect to receive a bit more personal attention from their energetic owner.

His country doctor career began in 1952 when he joined the Webster County practice of his father, Dr. C. R. (for Carey Ryker) Macdonnell. "That's when I came by the name, 'Dr. Tommy,'" Dr. Tommy says. "One time our receptionist went out and asked a patient who had just walked in, 'Did you come to see Tommy or the Doctor?' My father overheard her and he stepped out and said, 'It's Doctor Tommy. He has his M. D. degree.' From then on he was Dr. C. R. and I was Dr. Tommy."

Nevertheless, the young Dr. Macdonnell was not immediately in demand. Dr. Tommy shakes his head as he remembers. "My father would have maybe 15-18 patients sitting in the waiting room to see him and I would be in my office twiddling my thumbs." So his father sent Dr. Tommy out to make house calls to earn enough money to pay the receptionist. "That was my total income," he remembers, "$5,000 for the whole first year. And the second year too. I charged three dollars for a house call. If I had to go clear over into Wright County or across the creek, I'd charge five dollars."

Once he went to Wright County to treat a man who called and said he was terribly ill. Dr. Tommy made the long drive over:

When I got there all he had was a little head cold. I gave him a kind of aspirin compound and told him he'd be all right. As I went out to my car, he said, "Doc, can I get a ride back to town with you?" So I took him and on the way back into town I asked him, "Why in the world did you call me all the way out here to treat a simple cold when you could have come to town ?" He answered, "I couldn't get anybody to bring me in for five dollars

In 1953 the Doctors Macdonnell built a small clinic. Dr. Tommy had drawn up the plans a few years earlier, when he was a resident at Kansas City General hospital, but the construction date was moved forward because of an incident regarding their office over the drug store in downtown Marshfield, and Dr. Tommy's efforts to save his patients some money on drugs. "I would go to McQueary's drug company in Springfield and buy little bottles of no more than 100 pills at a time." He goes on to explain:

"I'd carry them in my bag when making the house calls that my father would send me on. The owner of the drug store where we had our offices saw that supply of drugs delivered one time. She came upstairs and told me, ' Your rent will be inversely proportionate to the number of prescriptions we fill downstairs'. That made me so mad I took those plans I had drawn and found a builder to build the clinic."


Dr. Tommy and Ann Macdonnell.

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His father negotiated for land with a man who owned a farm out close to what is now Interstate 44, although people told the Macdonnells they would never get any patients to come that far out in the country. People did find their way out there, of course, and the fracture room and ambulance entrance that Dr. Tommy had designed into the clinic saw lots of use from the trauma cases that occurred along old highway 66.

At last count, Dr. Tommy had presided over 4,582 deliveries. "That's not counting twins. I have had a few instances of triplets."The total charge for a delivery at the clinic was $35. That included a private room, a nursery, anesthesia, a private nurse, labor room, and food. Dr. Tommy's wife, Ann, did most of the cooking. Mrs. Macdonnell, an LPN with 47 years of experience, has been an active partner in her husband's medical practice throughout their marriage. They admit that she did take some time off as each of their eight children was born.

Until the clinic was built, home deliveries were the norm for both father and son. "My first delivery in the home here in Marshfield," recalls Dr. Tommy, "was a patient I had never seen:

Her mother called and said that her daughter 'had misery in her body.' I had learned earlier that meant she was in labor, so I grabbed my OB bag. I went out and checked the woman and told her she was going to have twins. One was headfirst and one was feet first.
I heard moaning and groaning and carrying on over in the corner from the mother. I asked, "What's the problem?" She answered, "Oh, I saw that happen once and the doctor broke the baby's neck and it died." I asked what doctor it was, and she said, "Oh, I don't know, he was with the show that was going through town." Anyway, I delivered two healthy boys and didn't break a neck! I charged them $25, which they never paid. One boy grew up to be a manager of an MFA store, and the other one ended up in prison.


Dr. Tommy's "mobile office."

"I charged three dollars for a house call. If I had to go
clear over into Wright County or across the creek,
I'd charge five dollars."

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Dr. C. R. Macdonnell is still a hero to his son. "My father was a very skilled obstetrician," Dr. Tommy says. "He was one of the reasons my training leaned toward obstetrics, too." People in Webster County still speak with love and affection about Dr. C. R. They tell of his willingness to make house calls and to stay with the patient as long as needed, passing some of the waiting hours by squirrel hunting in the nearby woods. When Dr. Macdonnell first came to Webster County in 1928, he served as County Health Officer for a salary of $25 per month. His duties included visiting all the rural schools, inspecting their water supplies, inspecting the outdoor privies, instructing the students and teachers in personal health habits, and beginning an immunization program. Immunization was not well received in the early 30s, remembers Dr. Tommy. Opponents spread word that smallpox vaccinations would kill children, spread smallpox, and in general cause all kinds of problems. Because of his father's pioneering work in public health and immunizaion, Legislator Tommy Macdonnell takes pride in the state-wide comprehensive immunization program which he drafted and helped pass.

During the Depression, Dr. Tommy says, much of his father's pay came in whatever products his patients could afford -- chickens, canned goods, garden track, even a muzzle-loading rifle, payment for a home delivery. The rifle, proudly restored, now hangs over the mantlepiece in the Macdonnell's home. With Dr. Tommy firing it, that gun, a 36-caliber Hawken, won the Centennial Muzzle Loading Contest at Marshfield during the Webster County Centennial in 1955. A young Tommy Macdonnell had earlier carried the rifle in the Webster County woods. "I've put many a squirrel on the table with that rifle," he smiles. My father would only allow me to shoot them in the head; never a body shot for a squirrel."

Later, during World War II, Tommy Macdonnell honed his shooting skills with the U. S. Army, serving on the rifle team at Fort Dix, New Jersey, and as an instructor in marksmanship. As a sharp shooter he went ashore with the 16th Regimental Combat Team during the invasion of France, June 6, 1944. Before he was able to come home, he had participated in a number of battles and collected several medals--a Silver Star, five Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He was offered a third Purple Heart, but declined it, saying he had all he needed, and was heading home to go to medical school.

Despite several examples in the family--in addition to his own father, his mother's father and brother were physicians--go-ing into medicine had not always been young Macdonnell's ambition. His initial studies at Drury College were in American diplomacy, government and history. But his war experiences encouraged him to come back and, as he puts it, "start saving lives and helping humanity in a different way." So it was on to medical school at Indiana University, by way of Drury College, Southwest Missouri State Teacher's College, and the University of Missouri.

His interest in government never quite left him, however. He served on the Southwest Missouri State University Board of Regents from 1975 to 1982, and was President of that Board the last two years. In 1986 he ran for the State Legislature on the Democratic ticket from the 140th District (Webster and part of Greene Counties). He won, and was reelected to that seat for the next three terms.

At last count, Dr. Tommy had presided over 4, 582 deliveries.., not counting twins.

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As a legislator, he has introduced and supported much legislation relating to health issues---clean indoor air, prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors, establishing the Office of Rural Health, the physician's assistant bill, health care and insurance programs, Medicaid, nursing home administrator's licensing, are among the many legislative concerns that bear the Macdonnell touch.

The second clinic building built by Dr. Tommy--the first, out by 1-44, made way for WalMart--has now been sold, and the owners, Cox Health Systems, have already begun remodeling for the new doctor who will occupy it. What will Dr. Tommy be doing now? He still has unfinished business in the Legislature. "I wrote the bill to establish the Office of Rural Health in the Department of Health," he says," and I put in a Sunset Clause for 1995. I've already begun rewriting that bill." He will also have input into some legislation regarding nurse practitioners. "My term is not up until January," he points out.

What does a country doctor do when he retires? Will you be devoting more time to your Herefords? he is asked. "Well, yes. In fact, with our hay, that's going to be our money crop. I'll keep busy." Ann Macdonnell agrees. "He's not going to sit around the house all day! I'll tell you that!"

You can bet on it.

From Ozark County Weekly News, July 26, 1894.


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