Robert O’Neil passed away on Tuesday at age 97, and it’s impossible to quantify the impact he had on our community and state. O’Neil was one of the most prominent physicians in Topeka, and he was a catalytic force in bringing health care resources to the city. Along with Robert Cotton, he founded Internal Medicine P.A. in 1956 — an institution now known as the Cotton O’Neil Clinic. When the clinic merged with Stormont Vail in 1995, it had 74 physicians. Today, there are more than 250 physicians working at locations throughout the state.
Cotton O’Neil is now one of the largest primary care providers in the Midwest. When O’Neil was inducted into the Topeka Business Hall of Fame in 2012 (along with Cotton, who was being honored posthumously), one of his former protégés explained how significant his presence had been in Topeka. Kent Palmberg is the former senior vice president of Stormont Vail, and he says Cotton O’Neil “brought the first oncologist, the first cardiologist, the first pulmonologist, all together under one roof. They truly brought specialty care to Topeka. Prior to that, it was all mainly primary care.”
O’Neil recruited doctors from across the country to ensure that Topekans wouldn’t have to drive all the way to Kansas City for specialty care. According to Palmberg, “Most of what I learned about recruiting I learned from Bob O’Neil.” Effective recruiting was essential for the growing clinic, because specialists were in demand all across the country, and O’Neil’s success should be a reminder that Topeka is capable of attracting top-tier talent.
Moreover, now that Topeka has a much broader range of quality health care options, potential residents have a much stronger incentive to consider living here — yet another reason why O’Neil’s legacy will be felt in our community for decades to come.
Palmberg joined Cotton O’Neil in 1978, and he gives us a glimpse of the effect that O’Neil had on the people who worked under him: “No physician has had more influence on my life than Dr. O’Neil. Everything I learned about physician leadership, I learned from him. He led in a way that was remarkable.” Raymond Lumb was the first rheumatologist in Topeka, and he was recruited by O’Neil as well. Lumb points out another reason why O’Neil was such an effective leader — he could build and maintain a strong consensus: “Bob had an amazing skill at getting all the consummate good ideas from the group together and congealing them into action, and he was so optimistic, people were willing to take the risk of moving forward.”
Beyond O’Neil’s remarkable career in medicine, he also served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, played football and basketball for the University of Kansas (where he was coached by the legendary Phog Allen), and held positions with a staggering number of professional boards, government entities and community organizations. Stormont Vail president and CEO Randy Peterson may have summarized his life best when he said, “Together with his family, we mourn the loss of a great innovator, a storied physician and a heroic community leader.”
O’Neil’s passing leaves an unfillable void in Topeka and the rest of the state. Then again, he’ll never really leave us because his work has permanently transformed our community, and it will continue to do so for a very long time.
Members of The Capital-Journal’s editorial advisory board are Zach Ahrens, Matt Johnson, Ray Beers Jr., Laura Burton, Garry Cushinberry, Mike Hall, Jessica Lucas, Veronica Padilla and John Stauffer.