Former CEO and President, Tufts Medical Center
Benjamin Andrews Chair of Surgery Emeritus,
Tufts University School of Medicine
“Unquestionably the residency program, with its incredible mentors and combination of clinical experiences and research, jump-started my career in academic surgery.”
When Tom O’Donnell was 15, he suffered a fractured femur while playing
football, an event that shaped the course of his entire life. His doctor
was renowned Boston-area orthopedic surgeon Joseph Dorgan, MD, who also
treated many members of the then-Boston Patriots. Impressed by Dorgan’s
confidence, skills, and role, O’Donnell decided that he, too, wanted to
become a surgeon.
Decades later, Dorgan sought out his former patient — now himself a
renowned surgeon — when he needed treatment for a vascular condition, an
experience Dorgan once wrote about for a magazine. “It was a privilege to
treat this man who had been my role model,” says O’Donnell, Benjamin
Andrews Chair of Surgery Emeritus at Tufts University School of
Medicine and Director of the Vein Center at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
After graduating from Harvard College, O’Donnell attended Tufts University
School of Medicine, from which he graduated cum laude. Eager to
train under the legendary William V. McDermott Jr., MD, who lived in his
hometown of Dedham, O’Donnell was thrilled to be accepted to the Fifth
(Harvard) Surgical Service, the general surgery residency program led by
McDermott that was then based at Boston City Hospital. (In 1973, when
O’Donnell was in his final chief year, McDermott relocated the Harvard
Surgical Service, which was established nearly 150 years ago, to New
England Deaconess Hospital).
Most important contributions
It was during O’Donnell’s residency — which included a year in the Navy at
the Beaufort Naval Hospital in South Carolina and a postgraduate year as a
senior registrar at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London — that O’Donnell
achieved what he still considers two of his most important contributions.
The first was his self-initiated research on heat-stress injuries among
young Marines at Parris Island during training exercises, which led to
Marine Corps policy changes that “impacted a lot of young men preparing for
Vietnam and hopefully saved lives,” says O’Donnell. This research was
published in 1972 in the New England Journal of Medicine,
co-authored by another of O’Donnell’s residency mentors, George H.A. Clowes
The second was the research he carried out with Clowes and George
Blackburn, MD, PhD, on the effects of sepsis on metabolism. This work
resulted in several influential publications, including one that earned
O’Donnell the Association for Academic Surgery Resident Research Prize.
“Unquestionably the residency program, with its incredible mentors and
combination of clinical experiences and research, jump-started my career in
academic surgery,” says O’Donnell. He added that his decision to specialize
in vascular surgery, and in particular venous disease, was also influenced
by his mentors on “Five Surg” and during his stint as a senior registrar in
A lasting mark
Following a clinical fellowship in vascular surgery at Massachusetts
General Hospital, 37 years ago O’Donnell was recruited to Tufts-New England
Medical Center (now Tufts Medical Center), where he has remained ever
since. At Tufts, he has served in a wide range of senior leadership
positions, including Chairman of the Department of Surgery and, from 1996
to 2004, Chief Executive Officer and President.
During all these years and whatever his role, O’Donnell has continued to
make a lasting mark in all domains of academic surgery. For example, he
developed several innovative treatments that have improved the outcomes for
patients with venous disease; has authored more than 160 peer-reviewed
papers and 62 book chapters; and has trained a long list of vascular
fellows, many of whom hold leadership positions in academic surgery.
O’Donnell also remains active in national and regional professional
societies, including the Society for Vascular Surgery, the American Venous
Forum, and the New England Society for Vascular Surgery, all of which he
once served as president.
As he ponders the next phase of his long, illustrious career, O’Donnell
plans to devote more time to clinical research and, he readily admits, his
other passions: playing golf and spending time with his six grandchildren.