Dr. Tommy Macdonnell, 94, sponsored legislation that protected smoke-free spaces in Missouri.
MARSHFIELD – Dr. Tommy Macdonnell has long been in the business of giving life.
He saved souls during World War II, where he served as a sharpshooter and stormed Normandy on D-Day. As Webster County’s beloved obstetrician, his smile was the first to welcome more than 4,500 babies into the world. Decades were dedicated to family practice, for which he founded a maternity hospital and modern clinic to support rural residents.
But that wasn’t enough for the 94-year-old Dr. Tommy, as locals affectionately call him.
Long before the belief was commonly accepted, the forward-thinking country doctor preached the grave health threat tied to secondhand smoke. He felt so strongly about its dangers that he did the only thing he could think to do.
He ran for a seat in Missouri’s House of Representatives so he could help protect the public through new legislation.
Over the next several years, he battled tobacco lobbyists. He went up against fellow politicians. His bill to offer smoke-free spaces was defeated numerous times — but still he fought. And 25 years ago, he won.
Thanks to Dr. Tommy, Missouri’s non-smokers were protected on a statewide level for the first time.
Dr. C.R. Macdonnell, Dr. Tommy’s father, had to give health care in unique ways — such as by having his nurse administer injections along the road. (Courtesy of Dr. Tommy Macdonnell)
Dr. Tommy’s passion for helping people began long before he earned his medical degree.
His father, Dr. C.R. Macdonnell, specialized in obstetrics and moved the family from Indiana to Marshfield in 1928. The elder Macdonnell was attracted to rural Webster County because he heard “it was good fishing and hunting territory,” says his son.
Due to his father’s calling, Dr. Tommy grew up in the medical field. “I would go with him on a lot of home deliveries, and I’d go squirrel hunting while he was in the house taking care of the mother-to-be,” he says. He also attended medical meetings with his father, where in his ignorance he’d collect sample packages of cigarettes for his father.
“I’d slap my hands now,” he says.
Dr. C.R. McDonnell’s office in 1929. (Courtesy of Dr. Tommy Macdonnell)
He was graduated from Marshfield High School and enrolled at Drury College (now University) where he considered going into medicine, or perhaps diplomacy or government service.
But then Dec. 7, 1941 — the day that will live in infamy — made its mark on history.
“When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my whole fraternity … enlisted in a reserve program except for two,” says Dr. Tommy. “Two men that had come to Drury from the state of Connecticut. We called them the Connecticut Yankees in King Arthur’s Court.”
He chose the Army, even though he was too young to be drafted. He prepared for war as best he could by taking certain subjects — such as quantitive analysis, physics and trajectory — as encouraged by the military. “But I dovetailed it enough that it would work also as credits for medical school entrance,” he says.
The next few years saw Dr. Tommy overseas, fighting Axis powers in World War II. He is one of few alive today who remember D-Day, a snapshot-in-time that has lasted far longer than the relatively few hours he spent on the beach.
“I think about it. I dream about it,” he says, recalling the day that came and went more than seven decades ago.
The day required Dr. Tommy to put his sharpshooting skills, gleaned through squirrel hunting in Webster County’s green-carpeted hills, to use.
“Between the (machine gun) bursts, I’d move. On up the hill, until I came to a latrine and I jumped in it,” he says, who was hit by shrapnel in the hip. “My gas mask had already been destroyed by bullet holes. I, fortunately, was not killed, but the man at arm’s-length from me was.”
Eventually, he managed to get within 150 yards of an enemy bunker and shot a round through a German observation scope.
“At 150 yards, it was an easy target,” he told NBC reporter Brian Williams in 2014, when interviewed for a program commemorating the 70th anniversary of the battle.
He spent years haunted by a friend, one who he believed kept calling for his help before he died. Those phantom cries weren’t laid to rest until years later, when another man who was there that day said they simply weren’t possible.
“(He) told me he saw my roommate hit, and he was killed instantly,” says Dr. Tommy. “He couldn’t have been calling me to help him. He was dead.”
The next year, Dr. Tommy once again saw horrific history made at the Battle of the Bulge. This time, he suffered a fractured skull, vision and hearing loss, broken ribs and multiple shrapnel wounds. A land mine was to blame.
He was even scouted by General Patton, and summoned to Germany to discuss possibilities for a future with the military. He recalls the day of the meeting, and of heading into the building. “I patted Patton’s jeep as I walked by it,” recalls Dr. Tommy.
He didn’t see Patton himself, but he spoke with the general’s representative and several other high-ranking officials. They offered to send him to Paris to train as a hospital administrator if he’d stay in Europe. But neither their offer nor their prestige swayed his heart’s decision.
“I said, ‘I’m wasting your time, and I’m wasting mine. I’ve got the points (for discharge), I’m going home and go to medical school, become a doctor, and start saving lives instead of taking them,'” recalls Dr. Tommy.
Even though his last day in the Army came more than 70 years ago, he can still open his wallet and pull out his honorable discharge card. He’s carried it with him, protected with laminate, all these years. No special reason why he keeps it so close, he says.
But sometimes actions speak louder than words.
Dr. Tommy didn’t waste time. Shortly after returning home, he began coursework at the University of Missouri to complete his undergraduate degree so he could start medical school. For that, he traveled back to his home state to attend Indiana University’s school of medicine.
Those years of school and residency, spent in Indiana and at Kansas City General Hospital, gave him time to dream. When he came back home to Marshfield in the early 1950s — his late wife Ann, who was a nurse, by his side — he knew what the town needed.
It needed a modern health care facility.
After all, he’d grown up seeing his father make house calls and home deliveries. When folks did come to an office, it was to where his father had space in the upper floors of a former bank. He wanted to have anesthesia, the ability to do minor surgery and on-site skilled help.
The Macdonnells’ maternity hospital and clinic under construction. (Courtesy of Dr. Tommy Macdonnell)
He got those things, and many more, when his hospital opened in the early 1950s. It was a project largely made possible because of local businessmen who agreed to invest. “Most of the people knew me from childhood,” says Dr. Tommy. “It was really important for me because they trusted I’d be successful.”
There were rooms for mothers and space for their babies. A fracture room was there, as well as one dedicated to cardiac patients and an emergency bed. He had most everything one needed for traction.There was space for continuing education with area physicians, which in the 1950s meant boxes of slides mailed to the clinic.
The facility had an electrocardiogram (EKG) machine, “the best one they had at Kansas City,” says Dr. Tommy. “Just got the same thing and put it in the clinic.” Ahead of his time, Dr. Tommy even had a way to refer those cardiac patients to a specialist via the phone.
“The person with EKG on was hooked up to that telephone line and transmitted to the … clinic in Kansas City, and he could interpret what was wrong,” says Dr. Tommy. “It was state-of-the-art.”
Dr. Tommy jumpstarted Webster County’s polio vaccination clinic, leading it in 1955 — the very same year the vaccine became available.
And all the while, he shared information about tobacco with patients. One of those people was even his father, who was a three-pack-a-day smoker until he had a heart attack.
“I got him to quit,” says Dr. Tommy. “He carried a package of cigarettes in his shirt pocket until it wore out, crumbled, as just a comfort agent. But he lived for 10 years longer.”
A photo of Dr. Tommy was featured “The Power to Heal,” a book that showcased health and medicine from around the world. For the photo, a reunion of “his” babies was held on the Marshfield square in 1989. (Courtesy of the Ed Fillmer)
But more than anything else, Dr. Tommy delivered babies.
“I’ve delivered 4,582, not counting twins, and never lost a mother,” says Dr. Tommy, a tinge of humble pride in his voice. He starts to say he never lost a baby, either — but then quickly corrects himself.
“I can’t say that I never lost a baby, because (there were) babies that were deformed, born dead,” he says, citing factors he couldn’t control.
“A mother was a heavy smoker, and the baby was dead in the womb from smoking so much that her placenta dried up,” he says, sharing one example. “(It) was just not getting circulation to the baby, and it suffocated from lack of nourishment.”
“No, I can’t say that I never lost a baby,” he says. “Strike that out. That’s not correct.”
A new chapter
Dr. Tommy continued operating his first Marshfield clinic through the 1980s, when he sold it and built a smaller one. By that time, he himself had eight children — most of whom his father delivered — and cultivated a cattle ranch and tree farm.
He served through a plethora of civic positions, such as on the Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) Board of Regents. He was president of Marshfield’s school board. He was consulted for obstetrical cases at Lester E. Cox Medical Centers (today’s CoxHealth) in Springfield.
But by the late 1980s, Dr. Tommy decided he had to do something else: He had to do something to protect others from tobacco’s dangers.
“I was so against smoking,” he says. “I wanted to enact some legislation that prohibited smoking in schools and houses and colleges, public buildings. And I couldn’t get it passed by me here in Marshfield and the Legislature doing what they were told to do. And being paid to do what they’re told to do by the lobbyists.
“So when I couldn’t get it done by long distance, I decided I’d just become part of it and fight it on the home front.”
But to end up on the home front on the House floor, he had to win an election. He decided to run in 1986 for the seat of Rep. Leroy Blunt, father of today’s U.S. Senator Roy Blunt, who retired.
That decision presented a challenge: Dr. Tommy is a Democrat, and “there had been very few Democrats elected in Webster County since the ‘War Between the States,'” as he puts it.
But if anyone could convince voters to switch their straight-ticket Republican votes, it was Dr. Tommy. And he did, winning by a wide margin. “I ran on the Democratic ticket, and had the chairman of the Republican county committee vote for me,” he says, a smile on his face, and took office in 1987.
His new political profession, however, didn’t mean that he’d give up seeing patients. “He plans to continue his medical practice with office hours on Saturdays and nursing-home rounds when he’s not in Jefferson City,” reported the Springfield News-Leader in January 1987.
According to “Caring for America,” a book about family practice, Dr. Tommy also found new patients at the Capitol. “Besides his legislative duties, the only doctor in the House also ran a free clinic out of his Capitol office and took care of some 300 legislators and staffers,” printed the book. “He dispensed samples supplied by drug companies.”
But those things weren’t enough: As the only doctor in the House, he worked to “educate,” as he puts it, the Legislature in Jefferson City as to the dangers of tobacco.
“I saw what it did to the health of the people that I was treating,” says Dr. Tommy. “I got research, documentation of tests that had been done by important research labs and universities that proved the toxicities of tobacco itself and secondhand smoke. I had patients that had died from secondhand smoke that I could quote, children that were not born because the mother was a heavy smoker. Disease, lung problems, COPD. So many things, and I worked on it and rewrote it.”
Those thoughts translated into a bill, proposed in 1988, that would guarantee that at least 70 percent of most public places would be designated as smoke-free. These areas included retail or commercial establishments, health-care facilities, public transportation, restrooms, elevators and libraries.
Dr. Tommy’s first try (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 9, 1988)
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch came out in support of his cause by February 1988, but acknowledged that the proposition would be difficult to pass.
“Getting the bill through the Jefferson City maze will not be easy. For one thing, Dr. Macdonnell’s bill would allow cities and towns to pre-empt the state’s standards with tougher standards of their own. Thus, the tobacco lobby is expected to fight the measure very hard. For another, the top three state Senate leaders, plus Rep. Judith O’Connor, chair of the House Public Health and Safety Committee, are smokers.”
The newspaper was right: The bill — dubbed the Clean Indoor Air Act — died in 1988. Dr. Tommy brought it back the next year — but no cigar.
It was proposed again in 1990. Dr. Tommy continued his educating, proven by an article in the Macon Chronicle-Herald from February 1990.
“Rep. Thomas Macdonnell hopes the third time will be the charm for one of his favorite causes: legislation to mandate non-smoking areas in most public places.
A physician for more than three decades, Macdonnell told a House committee Monday night he is pushing the bill because smoking causes cancer and people who breathe exhaled smoke, so-called second-hand smoke, are at risk.
At one point during this testimony, he held up a brochure with the question: ‘Does your baby smoke?’
The answer was next to the question: ‘If someone in your household is smoking, then your baby is too.'”
Dr. Tommy, as he gave the aforementioned presentation in February 1990. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader/AP)
That year, the bill got go-ahead from the House through a 132-23 vote. “Macdonnell, who has pushed the measure for three years without getting it out of committee, attributed his success Wednesday to growing public awareness of the hazards of smoking and of breathing second-hand smoke,” printed the News-Leader.
But it ultimately died that year, too. Part of the resistance was tied to a belief that restricting smoking would “interfere with individual rights and liberties,” as another representative put it in the Post-Dispatch.
Then came 1991. That year, the bill was approved in the House and the Senate. But when it came back to the House for final approval, time ran out before a vote was taken. Perhaps that factor tied to then-House Majority Leader Robert Ward’s relationship with tobacco lobbyist John Britton, shared in the Post-Dispatch in May.
“Britton, lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute, denied that he told Ward not to bring up the measure for a final vote. Ward, who smokes, voted against the bill when it passed the House earlier in the session but said ‘I had nothing against it.’
“Carol Winner, of the Missouri Coalition on Smoking and Health, said ‘A minimum of seven tobacco lobbyists went to Ward’s office after the Senate vote.’ But Ward said he was too busy to even take a phone call from any of them.
“Macdonnell said this was the fifth failure of the bill. ‘I’ll try it again next year, and try to figure out how to beat John Britton,'” he said.
In 1992, he did try again. “I’m ready for them this time,” he told the News-Leader back then. “I’m not going to be so nice. This is too important for the lives and welfare of the people of the state.”
Looking back 25 years later, he recalls those days.
“I had the bill completely memorized. They couldn’t trick me,” says Dr. Tommy, who believes that tobacco lobbyists spent around $200,000 trying to defeat his cause. He even faced two lawyers, hired by lobbyists, for a debate of the bill. “They kept me standing on the floor for two hours, debating — and I beat ’em!” he says.
On May 13, 1992, the Springfield News-Leader announced that the bill had passed and was headed to then-Governor John Ashcroft to sign into law.
“After five years of battling the tobacco lobby, Rep. Tommy Macdonnell succeeded Tuesday in sending a bill to the governor that would restrict smoking in most public places and ban the sale of tobacco to youths under age 18,” the newspaper printed.
That’s right: There was another component to Dr. Tommy’s efforts. His legislation made it illegal to sell or give tobacco to anyone under age 18 in the state of Missouri. After all, while the dangers of secondhand smoke were a major force behind his efforts, Macdonnell said back then that cycle-breaking was a huge part of the law’s benefit.
“By prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors, we will stop them from getting in the habit of using tobacco products when they’re young and they’ll be less likely to start using them as adults,” he told the newspaper. It also limited their exposure as youth, outright banning smoking use in schools and child-care facilities.
He was there the day Gov. Ashcroft signed the bill into law. “I stood up there with the governor when he signed it, and he handed me the pen,” he recalls.
The feeling of accomplishment was there, the doctor notes, but ultimately it wasn’t the best part of the win. “Truthfully, it has saved thousands of lives,” he says.
And they’re all because of Dr. Tommy.
“Caring for America: the story of family practice,” John R. Stanard, 1997
“D-Day Veteran’s Journey Back to Normandy With Brian Williams,” NBC Nightly News, June 6, 2014
“‘Dr. Tommy’ soars with his babies,” Michelle Beth Katzenell, Springfield News-Leader, Nov. 19, 1989
“Dr. Tommy still on call at the House,” Terri Gleich, Springfield News-Leader, April 18, 1994
“House advances bill to restrict smoking,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 12, 1990
“House gives first OK to Indoor Air Act,” Terri Gleich, Springfield News-Leader, April 12, 1990
“Lawmakers opt for bills on boating, smoking bans,” Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 5, 1992
“Ozarks’ new legislators move in,” Roger Snell, Springfield News-Leader, Jan. 7, 1987
“Protect the trail; clear the air,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 14, 1988
“Senate bill would limit smoking in many public places,” Terri Gleich, Springfield News-Leader, April 9, 1992
“Smoke-free efforts can be state goal,” Springfield News-Leader, March 21, 1991
“Smoking bill passes,” Terri Gleich, Springfield News-Leader, May 13, 1992
“Some key issues lost in state shuffle,” Springfield News-leader, May 26, 1991
“Sponsor bemoans smoking bill’s demise,” Fred W. Lindecke, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 22, 1991
“State lawmakers seeks to limit smoking,” Carl Manning, Macon Chronicle-Herald, Feb. 6, 1990
“You just did what you had to do,” Mike Penprase, Springfield News-Leader, June 6, 2009