Lives of the fellows

Thomas Vianney O'Donnell

b.23 July 1926 d.25 December 2014
CBE(1989) BMedSci(1946) MB ChB NZ(1949) MD NZ(1959) FRACP(1963) FRCP(1972)

Thomas (Tom) Vianney O’Donnell was born in Wellington, the only son of Patrick and Anne O'Donnell. He completed his primary education at St Mary's Convent School and Marist Brothers in Hawkestone St, Wellington before moving as a boarder to Sacred Heart College, Auckland. Tom travelled to Medical School in Dunedin as a 16 year old, taking time to do extended research as part of a BMedSci before graduating MB ChB in 1949. After completing residency in Dunedin, during which time he established professional friendships to last a life time, he obtained a Nuffield Commonwealth Fellowship and travelled to London to fellowships in Cardiology and Thoracic Medicine at the Hammersmith and Middlesex Hospitals. A move to the Cardiovascular Research Institute (CVRI) in San Francisco then followed in 1959, where he thrived, academically stimulated by the professional mentorship of Dr Julius Comroe, but also personally, culminating in his marriage to Mary Jean Lynch a respiratory laboratory scientist and fifth generation Californian who he met while working at CVRI.

They returned to New Zealand in 1960, when Tom was conjointly appointed to the Department of Medicine at the University of Otago Medical School as a Lecturer, as well as to the Otago Hospital Board as a Medical Specialist. His professorial appointment to a Personal Chair of Medicine within the Department came in 1970. He was an elected member of the Faculty Board of the University of Otago for 10 years. These were very happy times in Dunedin. Four children (Anne, Clare, Jean-Marie and Paul) and busy family life, a house build in Roslyn, his green chevrolet biscayne, and a close community of friends. Tom was a proud member of the Otago University Medical Company of the NZ Territorial Force, retiring in 1971 with the rank of Major. He also contributed to medical education through the Colombo Plan, spending time as a visiting lecturer at the University of Singapore Medical School in 1964.

In 1973 Tom was appointed as Professor of Medicine and Foundation Head of the new Department of Medicine at the Wellington Clinical School of Medicine, University of Otago Wellington. He built a strong department. During this time he developed his personal research in Respiratory Medicine particularly Asthma - publishing landmark papers exploring Asthma Mortality in New Zealand (‘Asthma Mortality in New Zealand: a two year national study.’ MR Sears, HH Rea, R Beaglehole, AJD Gillies, PE Holst, TV O'Donnell, PR Rothwell, DC Sutherland. NZ Med J 98:271-275), aeroallergens and the role of fungi in Asthma (‘Asthma and Fungi in the home.’ PE Holst. E Coleman, J Sheridan, TV O'Donnell, P Sutthoff. NZ Med Journal 96:718-720), and occupational asthma with particular reference to the Aluminium Industry. He was the physician in attendance for the Royal visit (1970) and the visit to New Zealand of Pope John Paul II (1986). His resume includes over 90 peer reviewed publications.

In 1986 he was appointed as Dean for the Wellington School of Medicine a post he held until retirement in 1992. Despite an expanded administrative role, clinical medicine remained a passion. The professional responsibilities of a physician were vitally important to Tom in the care of the patient and their family. He was a Council member and subsequently Master of the Guild of Catholic Doctors in Wellington, the Guild of St Luke, SS Cosmas and Damian (1984-89). He enjoyed teaching clinical medicine, contributing to the leadership of the ward team with A/Prof Peter Holst, hospital meetings and Grand rounds, as well as the academic environment at the Wellington School of Medicine. As a senior Wellington Hospital clinician and academic he chaired the Research Ethics Committee from 1975-1983. In 1993 he was appointed by the Minister of Health to the Board of Canterbury Health, was made Deputy Chair and continued in this role until 1999. Tom was initially appointed to the Board of the Malaghan Research Institute (MRI) in his capacity of Dean of the Wellington Medical School in 1986, but remained as an elected Board member (1992) until 2005. He was proud of his involvement, as the MRI cemented its position in the Wellington academic environment as well as a strong national and international research reputation.

He worked for over 10 years in assessment committee roles for the Medical Research Committee (MRC) of New Zealand (1968-76, 1980-85), he was the Chair and Convenor of the MRC Asthma Task Force (1979-1990). Tom served in a variety of roles for the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, as a member of committees and as a college representative, including the NZ Board of Censors for 8 years, and then as Chair of the NZ Specialities Board from 199 -1993.

Tom was a Foundation Council Member for the Wellington Medical Research Foundation, and was accorded Life Membership of the Foundation in 1992. He was appointed to the Lottery Health Research Committee in 1974, working on the committee for 20 years, becoming chair in 1984. He served on the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation Grants Advisory Committee, the New Zealand Medical Society for Alcohol and Alcoholism, as a board member of the NZ Medical Alert Foundation, he was an honorary life member of the NZ Federation of Sports Medicine starting as a Foundation Fellow in 1990. He was a member of the Cardiac Society of Australia and New Zealand, the American Thoracic Society as well as the Thoracic Society of Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ). He served both on the Executive and as President for the New Zealand Branch for TSANZ and was awarded the Society Medal in 1994.

His work with the Asthma Society and latterly the Asthma Foundation was very important to him, as he saw these groups as pivotal in empowering patient education and self care as well as New Zealand based research. He was the NZ Asthma Society President from 1973-1980, member of council and then president of the NZ Asthma Foundation 1992-1994, with honorary life membership conferred in 1987.

Through his interests in occupational asthma Tom worked as a consultant for Comalco from 1982-2000. He was appointed to the International Primary Aluminium Institute Health Committee as the representative of Australia and New Zealand from 1985-1999, the last 5 years as chair. He was a Member of WHO/International Committees for the Promotion of Chemical Safety in Health firstly for Aluminium in Brisbane in 1994, and then Zinc in Adelaide in 1996.

On retirement Tom was honoured to be accorded status as Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Otago. He embraced retirement with the same vigour that characterised his professional life. While he retained many of his Committee and governance roles and worked hard at these for much of his retirement, he took up Golf, very much enjoying the camaraderie of "the Monday Group"; he attended the Wellington Medical History Society; took on leadership roles for the Catholic Homes Trust and continued his lifelong love of the news, politics, wine, horse racing, and music particularly the NZSO. In life he worked hard and strove for excellence, he was passionate about family, church, teaching and medicine. He died after a short illness on Christmas Day 2014, surrounded by his family.

Anne O’Donnell

[Reproduced, with permission, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ College Roll]

(Volume XII, page web)

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