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Michael O’Donnell: medical journalist, author, broadcaster, and GMC reformer

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: (Published 26 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1896
  1. John Illman
  1. London, UK
  1. john{at}

As editor of World Medicine, Michael O’Donnell was an outstanding radical journalist. Stephen Lock, a former editor of The BMJ, ranked him alongside William Cobbett (1763-1835), Thomas Wakley (1795-1862), William Morris (1834-96), and George Orwell (1903-50) in terms of zest, wit, readability, and purpose.

Wakley is perhaps the most appropriate comparator. Founder editor of the Lancet in 1823, Wakley attacked nepotism, malpractice, and quackery—“the canker worm which eats into the heart of the medical body.” O’Donnell’s canker worm was the General Medical Council and a profession where power was exerted largely through “a mixture of patronage and politesse.”

Both men were renowned innovators. While the Lancet was—among other things—the first periodical with a chess column, World Medicine—medicine’s Private Eye—broke new ground by reflecting “the uncertainties, the paradoxes, and the black comedy that make practising our craft so rewarding.”

World Medicine

O’Donnell began his 16 year tenure at World Medicine in 1966. There was no better time for a radical. This was the “swinging sixties,” symbolised by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the civil rights movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the anti-Vietnam war movement, women’s liberation, satire, and the advent of the contraceptive pill.

O’Donnell already had a formidable reputation. While studying natural sciences at Cambridge, he appeared in La Vie Cambridgienne, the first …

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