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Local History

Dr. Tommy Macdonnell Reflects On Work During Polio Epidemic

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Provided by Kaitlyn McConnell
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Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. Listen to the audio essay below.

For more than 98 years, Dr. Tommy Macdonnell’s hands have changed lives.

The same fingers that are folded in his lap were in the fight at D-Day during World War II. They pulled the trigger on a rifle, destroying a German observation scope and giving an estimated one thousand people the chance to live. They were the first to greet more than 4,500 babies as they made their way into the world during his decades as a doctor. They helped write legislation that would -- after years of repeated failures -- prohibit smoking in public places and the sale of tobacco to anyone under 18. 

And, in the 1950s, they helped vaccinate kids in Webster County against polio as he led the county’s vaccination program. 

"Actually, it was so severe that we didn't really have anybody say, 'No, I'm not going to take that,'" he says. 

Looking back, those are his thoughts about polio and the local reaction to the vaccine. But before the vaccine’s arrival, he saw the devastation of polio in a significant way at Kansas City General Hospital, where he served as a resident physician in the early 1950s. There, he managed the care of polio patients. 

He recounts a tragic situation involving a woman who was heavily pregnant and had polio, but there was nothing that could be done to save her. Dr. Tommy sat with her and held her hand until she died, and then took his scalpel and performed a cesarean section to quickly deliver the baby. 

At other times, even when a patient might benefit from using an iron lung, they were unable to because the hospital only had 17. He recalls the night when three teenage girls came to the hospital with bulbar polio.

Dr. Tommy surveyed the situation and determined that two people needed to be removed from iron lungs so the sickest ones could use them. The other three individuals were cared for as best as possible, but ultimately, the night ended in tragedy. 

"Two of them died," he recounts.

After completing his training in Kansas City, that experience went with him to Webster County in the early 1950s. He went home to where he grew up, and to work alongside his father, who was also a physician. There, he became affectionately known as Dr. Tommy. It’s a name that’s stuck ever since.

There were not as many cases of polio around Webster County at that time, he says, but it was still a threat, and brought fear to the community. There was a girl near Hartville who died; for another, he recounts, he performed a tracheotomy so she could breathe.

Such facts made the moment, 11 years after that historic day in World War II when he took out the German scope, especially memorable. Dr. Tommy began an effort to save lives in a new way by overseeing the local polio vaccination program. 

"The first polio vaccinations in Webster County (and possibly the first in the state of Missouri) were administered to first and second grade children last Friday morning at Elkland school," noted the front page of the Marshfield Mail in April 1955. "In order to follow the immunization schedule as set up by Dr. T.M. Macdonnell, director of the polio vaccine program, Jane Day, public health nurse, went to Jefferson City Thursday to get the vaccine so that vaccinations could begin on schedule.

"First shots were also given at Niangua and Marshfield on Friday and at Rogersville, Fordland and Seymour on Tuesday."

The words were accompanied by a photo of a 32-year-old Dr. Tommy giving a shot to an overall-clad boy. A fun little fact: The reason Dr. Tommy has a beard in the photo is because this was during Webster County’s centennial celebration, and men were required to grow a beard or pay a fine.

The historic moment was also noted in a column about happenings in Elkland. Its author said “it was an honor for Elkland” to have the first dose.  

Around a month after the start of vaccinations, the Mail reported that of the 616 children who were eligible, 444 had already received their first of two required doses.

As polio became less of an ongoing issue, Dr. Tommy continued his effort to educate about the importance of vaccines. 

He took that passion with him to Jefferson City in the 1980s, when he was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives, and advocated for stronger requirements for vaccination of children upon the start of school. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, there hasn’t been a new case of polio in the United States in more than 40 years. It’s something the department’s website attributes to vaccinations.

Today we are faced with a new challenge through COVID-19, one that scientists and physicians say can be stopped with the same tool as polio: vaccination. 

Do you have yours?

"Yes, both of them," he says.

But, before we’re done - what happened to the baby he rescued during the emergency c-section? 

"I got a live baby," says Dr. Tommy. "After she grew up and moved to Oklahoma, I would get a letter from her every year telling me what she was doing. She had children. She had two little girls. Which was a blessing -- God's loving kindness that saved her when I did the cesarean section." 

For Ozarks Alive Time Capsule, I’m Kaitlyn McConnell