Cooper: Jack McConnell was Renaissance man

Dr. Jack McConnell
Dr. Jack McConnell

A great man with ties to Chattanooga died with little fanfare in South Carolina earlier this week.

Dr. Jack McConnell, director of the development of Tylenol, developer of the standard tuberculosis test, director of the program for the first commercial MRI system in the United States and founder of the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, died on Hilton Head Island at the age of 93.

He spent time in the Chattanooga area as a child - the youngest of eight - when his father was appointed to the area as a Methodist minister. One of his brothers was Dr. Sam P. McConnell, who was superintendent of Hamilton County Schools from 1955 to 1974 and for whom McConnell Elementary School is named. One of his children is Page McConnell, keyboardist for the rock band Phish, with whom he would occasionally appear to sing his favorite song, "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?"

Although McConnell's medical accomplishments were significant, it was the founding of Volunteers in Medicine that gave him the most pride. Newly retired to the Palmetto State 25 years ago, he told the Times Free Press in the early 2000s, he had tired quickly of playing golf when one day he picked up a hitchhiker. He learned the man needed a job, had a wife who was expecting a baby and had no health insurance.

His solution was to recruit a group of retired doctors and other medical care professionals on the island who would volunteer their time in a clinic to assist those persons who couldn't pay. It took a while and there were myriad hoops to jump through, but he got it done. The first one opened in 1994, and as of November 2017 there were 89 member clinics in 28 states, including one in Chattanooga that opened in 2005. In 2017, the local clinic had 4,537 patient visits and since its opening had logged patient visits valued at $22 million at clinic rates.

McConnell told the newspaper he was still inspired years later by his father's nightly dinner-table question: "What have you done for someone today?"

During his medical career with McNeil Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson, he also was asked by then-U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici to help write a bill to authorize the Human Genome Project and later worked with others dealing with the business and ethical issues associated with human genome research.

Brilliant, philanthropic and forward thinking, McConnell also was humble and kind. And tap dancing with Phish only sealed his place as a true Renaissance man.

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