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Tom Dooley

Tom Dooley by Julie Lonneman

Artist's Narrative:

Tom Dooley's parents hoped that he would become a concert pianist and sent him to the Julliard School of Music as a teenager. This was not the path that Tom wanted for himself, however. He felt called to become a doctor.

After receiving his M.D. degree from the University of St. Louis, Tom volunteered as a medical intern on the U.S.S. Montague, which transported refugees from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. He later worked in the refugee camps of Haiphong and knew that he wanted to continue working to improve medical care in Southeast Asia.

In 1958, Tom established MEDICO, the Medical International Cooperation Organization, dedicated to bringing medical care to war-torn nations. Tom began a number of hospitals in Asia and would oversee the training of native doctors. MEDICO, which later merged with CARE, Inc., raised millions of dollars for their medical work.

Tom wrote three books during his life and donated the money to MEDICO. He also gave many lectures and raised more money for the organization. By the end of the 1950's, however, Tom suffered from a rapidly spreading cancer. Determined to work for MEDICO as long as he could, he continued to give lectures and raise money while sick. The cancer soon spread throughout his body, and Tom died on January 18, 1961. After his death, the U.S. Congress struck a medal that recognizes the work of the Catholic missionary doctor.
—ND Vision, University of Notre Dame

"I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. What I can do, I ought to do, and what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do."
—Dr. Tom Dooley

United States, 1927-1961.

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Tom Dooley met his destiny in 1954 while serving as a young Navy Lieutenant assigned to caring for refugees in North Vietnam. From that experience his life took fire and was never to be the same again. Tom, who grew up in a comfortable suburb of St. Louis, was tormented by his new found realization that half the world goes to bed hungry every night, that half the world spends a lifetime without seeing a doctor – that half the world still suffers from the diseases of Biblical days.

The young physician was unable to ignore these realities of human existence. He was determined to bring to the other half of the world medical care, education and training for better health and a new quality of life. In 1958, he founded MEDICO, and in the three short years before his painful death from cancer in 1961, he established 17 medical programs in 14 countries. Tom Dooley, with his charismatic gifts captured the heart of America and became a legend in his own time. Tom’s one great fear was not his own death, but that his work and ideas would die with him.

But, who was this man Tom Dooley? To some, he was a saint – to others, an extraordinary doctor with a colorful personality on an extraordinary mission in life. To others, he was a shameless self-promoter – a product of an emerging electronic medium.

Nonetheless, in five short years he became one of the world’s most admired men – honored by such notables as His Excellency the Pope, Albert Schweitzer, Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Arleigh Burke, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon, Dr. Charles Mayo and posthumously by a special medal authorized by the United States Congress.

Tom was a most uncommon man. But what made this so? In truth it was much by the luck of the Irish. Being a poor and undisciplined student in medical school - - his MD Degree from St. Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri, was temporarily deferred but conferred at a later date - - thanks to the efforts of the school’s dean, Dr. Melvin Casberg, who, as a mentor, admirer and supporter of Tom, recognized an unusual man of intellect who dared to be different. Dr. Casberg arranged for Tom to enlist in the U.S. Navy and to be assigned as an intern at the Camp Pendleton, California Navy Hospital.

Again by luck, Tom was soon reassigned to the Yokosuka Naval Hospital in Japan. Again, Tom proved to be his own worst enemy. After an unusually brief tour of duty he received orders from his commanding officer transferring him from shore to ship duty. With that the Dooley legend began. And again by luck, that ship happened to be the USS Montague headed for Haiphong, North Vietnam, to aid in the evacuation of 800,000 refugees and civilians being forced to leave North Vietnam for South Vietnam in accordance with the terms of the 1954 Geneva Peace Treaty, ending the French Indochina War. Most of them were devout Catholics. North Vietnam was then an oppressive atheistic Communist state.

In providing medical services to those refugees, Tom’s life was changed forever. At the age of 27, he found purpose and meaning to his life.

From that point on the Tom Dooley story is well known, but then who was this individual?

He was a gifted man with good looks, irresistible charm and charisma; fiercely independent, a colorful personality, intellectually brilliant, with an Irish wit and superb oratorical skills laced with well crafted, rapid fire phrases and stories as well as being an excellent writer. He was an idealist with a selfless devotion to a higher calling, possessed with deep religious convictions and a single-minded dedication to his work pursued with relentless uncompromising drive and energy.

And yet with all that, Tom was not universally admired. He was criticized by many and despised by some. He had a very complex personality full of contradictions - - he could be cocky, overbearing, egotistical, sarcastic - - he had a likeable charm which he could turn on and off like a spigot. His presentations were theatrical with a need to always be the center of attraction - - he was intolerant of mediocrity in himself and others. Yet with all his undeniable faults, they were far outweighed by his uncommon virtue.


Given all these gifts and complexities, Tom was a shy and lonely man. He had built a wall around his heart, which was open to almost no one. Tom was consumed by doubts and fears, fearful he would be misunderstood, tolerating criticism poorly. Tom found real friendship with very few in his lifetime. Although a great communicator - - he could never communicate his inner feelings to anyone, but, out of his loneliness came an overbearing drive to make the world a better place.

However, interestingly enough - - when Tom was in his clinic in Laos at Muong Sing seeing patients, he was in his element and became a different person - - his voice softened, he was humble, caring and compassionate. Here he felt safe, no longer needing to impress anyone - - he knew he was accepted and loved.

Tom Dooley died of cancer in January 1961, at the age of 34. He was buried in St. Louis and given a Military Funeral with a U.S. Navy Honor Guard.

Born: January 17, 1927

Died: January 18, 1961 Cancer

—Excerpts from “Dr. Tom Dooley The Legend and the Man”, Dooley Foundation Intermed International.