Skip to main content

Doctor’s short life was long on accomplishments

In his day, Dr. Thomas Anthony Dooley III was one of the most admired men in America, yet at the present time he is almost forgotten. If by some miracle he was alive today, he would doubtless still be doing those deeds for which he was so justly recognized. In 1961, shortly after his death, Congress responded by authorizing a gold medal to honor his memory.

DooleyMedal vert

The story begins in the spring of 1955, when Dr. Dooley was a Naval doctor on board the U.S.S. Montague anchored off the coast of what was then North Vietnam. The French had been defeated in an effort to hold together their Indo-Chinese empire, and the country had been split into four parts: North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Dr. Dooley was one of many doctors who had been assigned the task of treating the illnesses of the refugees fleeing communist North Vietnam.

The doctor was so taken with the suffering he had seen that he resigned his commission and began a campaign to aid the underprivileged in the Indo-China area. With the aid of Dr. Peter Comanduras, he formed Medical International Cooperation (MEDICO). The purpose of MEDICO was to bring badly needed medical aid to Third World countries.

Because money was in short supply, Dr. Dooley launched an extensive speaking tour of the United States in an effort to raise funds. At the same time, he began the first of four books he was to write, including the bestseller Deliver Us from Evil. By the time of his death, nearly $1 million in book royalties had been given to MEDICO.

Dr. Dooley planned his first medical outpost in the small Laotian town of Muong Sing, very close to the Chinese border. At first, the government of Laos rejected out of hand the plans for the medical facility, but Dooley was persistent and was allowed to proceed. As the proposed facility was deep in the jungle, it proved to be very difficult to get basic medical equipment to this remote area. Even canoes were utilized to bring in the materials. (The U.S. Air Force had flown supplies to the nearest landing strip, but there was still quite a journey from there.)

The doctor saw to it that all persons who came for aid were treated equally, and he soon won the trust of the surrounding peoples. A suspicious Laotian government turned into an admiring one, and Dr. Dooley was awarded the Order of One Million Elephants, its highest honor.

The first hospital building was made of local supplies, including branches for walls and straw mats for beds. In this pilot operation, the doctor was aided by a small contingent of American volunteers. Within two months of opening, 5,000 people had been treated for diseases ranging from small pox to leprosy.

Dooley also visited local villages with a traveling dispensary, treating those people with minor illnesses. He also transported the more seriously ill patients to his hospital in his Jeep.

In an incident little noticed at the time, he fell from a Jeep in Laos and badly bruised some ribs on his right side. Cancer was detected in early 1959, and Dr. Dooley underwent that same year the first of several operations in an effort to halt the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, he traveled tirelessly throughout the United States to raise funds and bring the plight of these people to public attention. By late 1959, he was one of the most highly-respected and well-known Americans, both at home and abroad.

With the experience gained from setting up his first hospital, Dooley began to organize other facilities of the same type. He used local volunteers as much as possible, training them to do para-medical tasks in the absence of trained physicians.

Throughout 1960, Dr. Dooley worked at breakneck speed, knowing that his time on earth was growing more limited each day. In early 1961, he collapsed at Bangkok and was rushed to a New York hospital, where he died on Jan. 18, one day after his 34th birthday.

Since commencing his public service in 1955, Dr. Dooley had founded seven hospitals, traveled more than 400,000 miles, and raised millions of dollars for his projects. It was a record that most men would not achieve in a lifetime, let alone the short span of time available to him.

The widespread admiration for him carried over to Congress which authorized on May 27, 1961, the special gold medal. The dies were finished within a few months and the medal awarded to his family. The obverse has a three-quarters facing portrait by Frank Gasparro, then an assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint.

The reverse, with its legend “In recognition of the public service to alleviate suffering among people of the world,” is an artistic tour-de-force showing Dr. Dooley holding one child and surrounded by others. A portion of the globe serves as a background to the central scene. Gasparro also did this side, and his initials are so difficult to find that one suspects that he did not wish to intrude on a superb work of art.

At one time, this 3-inch medal was for sale by the United States Mint, but as with so many others honoring past heroes, the medal is no longer available from this source.

Instead, it has to be obtained on the secondary market. Try eBay.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

If you like what you've read here, we invite you to visit our online bookstore to learn more about Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins.

Learn more >>>

Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths About U.S. Coins