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Medicine man

McConnell caps career with volunteer clinic.

By David Z. Rose (Biology ’00) | Posted January 2001

Most people who retire to charming, posh Hilton Head Island, S.C. — home to some of the nation’s best beaches, golf courses and restaurants — are excited with their new lives. Not Jack McConnell (Chemistry ’47).

The former Wahoo-turned-physician, who finished up a distinguished medical career with Johnson & Johnson about a decade ago, thought the enchanting world of Hilton Head was actually rather boring.

Things started to change a short time into his retirement, when McConnell began offering rides to hitchhikers on the island. Given the nature of his former profession, the good doctor frequently inquired about the hitchhikers’ healthcare status.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted to learn that they had no access to healthcare at all,” McConnell said. “I thought, ‘Someone should step up and do something about it.’”

Sixty-two retired MDs, 65 retired nurses, 17 retired dentists, eight retired social workers and three retired chiropractors later, Jack McConnell has transformed that thought into action. In 1993, he founded the non-profit Volunteers in Medicine (VIM), a free healthcare clinic that serves more than 15,000 needy people in the Hilton Head community every year.

“What we have is a group of talented medical professionals who are now doing what they have always wanted to do — work in a bureaucrat-free, hassle-free environment,” McConnell said. “I never advertised or recruited a soul.” At the VIM clinic, there are no charges, bills, or insurance forms to fill out for the patients, many of whom work in the service and tourism industry. And its success, captured by the media around the country, has sparked other VIM clinics to crop up in a dozen other cities. Many are not as luxurious as Hilton Head — like East St. Louis, Mo., and Newark, N.J. Some 28 more are on the way.

Such a stunning accomplishment should be no surprise coming from the brain of Dr. Jack McConnell — the man who developed the incalculably famous over-the-counter pain-reliever Tylenol, created the first commercial Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) system and devised the legendary four-pronged tine test for tuberculosis.

But long before he made his mark on the history of medicine, McConnell majored in chemistry at the University. In 1943, during the height of World War II, McConnell enrolled in the Navy’s V-12 program that gave him a pre-medical and then medical education to be an overseas armed forces doctor. McConnell was two credits shy of a bachelor’s degree when he had completed all of his required pre-med classes at U.Va. and had to leave to attend the University of Tennessee’s medical school.

At U.Va., McConnell served on the Honor Committee, a task he said was “both wretched and rewarding at the same time,” as he remembered acquitting two fellow Cavaliers yet asking one to leave for an honor violation. “I was absolutely enthralled with the spirit and culture of U.Va., especially the Honor Code. My family lived by an honor code and I worked for many years at Johnson & Johnson, where there was a credo. It prompts conduct conducive to civility, and I’m extremely comfortable with that.”

David Z. Rose is a medical student at Temple University in Philadelphia.

This article was originally published in A&S Magazine

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