Dr. Tommy’s life and times

Dr. Tommy Macdonnell's work as a legislator has helped make Missouri smoke-free.

man sitting on couch

Starting in the 1950s, Tommy Macdonnell delivered thousands of babies in Marshfield, Missouri. In 1986, he joined the Missouri legislature and within a few years delivered a law guaranteeing smoke-free air in public places. Read more about “Dr. Tommy” at ozarksalive.com. Photo by Kaitlyn McConnell.

Tommy Macdonnell, BS Med ’49, has long been in the business of bringing life into the world. And preserving it. As a beloved obstetrician, Macdonnell’s smile was the first to welcome more than 4,500 babies born in Marshfield, Missouri. He founded a maternity hospital and modern clinic for local residents, but there’s much more to the 94-year-old, whom locals affectionately refer to as Dr. Tommy.

Growing up in Marshfield, Macdonnell had always planned to follow in the footsteps of his father, also an obstetrician. But he was moved to enlist in the Army after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. During World War II, he fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the D-Day invasion. Upon returning home, having earned a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts, he completed undergraduate coursework at MU and went on to medical school. After his residency at Kansas City General Hospital, he moved back home in the early 1950s to practice medicine.

Then, as now, tobacco use was a public health problem physicians couldn’t ignore. By the 1980s, after more than 30 years of watching tobacco ravage his patients and neighbors, Macdonnell felt he had to act. Instead of helping one patient at a time, he would protect their health through public policy. So, in 1986, he won a seat in the Missouri House of Representatives. Macdonnell was ahead of his time in preaching against the health threat of secondhand tobacco smoke.

In 1988, Macdonnell proposed the Clean Indoor Air Act, which would have barred smoking in public spaces and limited tobacco sales to minors. He not only had to educate the public and fellow legislators on the issues, he also had to battle the well-funded tobacco lobby. Macdonnell’s first attempt failed, so he brought it back the next year. And the next. And the next, until 1991, when the proposal made it through the House and Senate. Alas, no final vote was taken.

In 1992, Macdonnell tried yet again, vowing to reporters: “I’m ready for them this time. I’m not going to be so nice.” Despite tobacco industry lobbyists spending an estimated $200,000 campaigning against the legislation, Macdonnell prevailed.

But winning wasn’t the best part, Dr. Tommy says. “Truthfully, [the legislation] has saved thousands of lives.”

To read more MIZZOU magazine stories online, visit mizzou.com.

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