Even though he retired almost two decades ago, 80-year-old Tom McDonald is still working for Alcon.

Well, sort of.

He is writing a book about the first 50 years of the company. 

It’s a story that starts in the 1940s when Robert Alexander and William Conner combined portions of their last names and opened Alcon Prescription Laboratory in downtown Fort Worth.

McDonald said he’s learned from taking the oral histories of retirees like himself and combing through company and Tarrant County archives that the founders chose to focus on the eyes after successfully showing off the products they developed. They showed them to doctors while traveling across the country, first to a Kiwanis International event in California and then to an American Academy of Ophthalmology and Otolaryngology conference in Chicago.

“They found out that nobody was specializing in providing or fulfilling the needs of the ophthalmologist, so it was an untapped market,” McDonald said.

Fort Worth is well known for the cattle and aircraft industries, but neither can claim to have been birthed here like Alcon can, said LeAnna Schooley, executive director of the Center for Texas Studies at Texas Christian University.

Company at a glance

  • Founded in Fort Worth in 1945
  • Corporate headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland
  • Employs more than 23,000 associates (about 3,000 of those associates are in the DFW area)

“And I think that very few people today realize that your average eye droppers that we use constantly in all sorts of medications have their roots right there in Alcon, and that’s part of why I say I think that it’s kind of a hidden gem. I don’t know that a lot of even Fort Worth natives realize the impact that the innovation rooted in Alcon has had on really the whole world,” said Schooley, who hopes to have McDonald give a lecture on the company in a partnership with the Center at the Fort Worth Public Library.

McDonald went to work for Alcon after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology from TCU in the 1960s. He worked there for 39 years, retiring as vice president of the research and development department in 2004. 

He is particularly proud of being part of the development of betoptic eye drops

The anti-glaucoma drug was Alcon’s first product to garner $100 million. It reduced pressure within the eye, he said.

“There had been (anti-glaucoma) products on the market before, but they had significant side effects. They caused a blurring of vision, betoptic did not,” McDonald said.

The company fostered an innovative culture by investing in its employees. It added $2 for every $1 an employee put into their savings account, which was unheard of at the time. It also provided employees with top-notch health insurance and stock options, he said.

TCU Press is interested in publishing McDonald’s book, TCU Press Director Dan Williams said. McDonald said it will come out in either 2022 or 2023. He is currently writing the third chapter and there will be seven total. The former CEO of Alcon, Edgar H. Schollmaier, sits on TCU’s Board of Trustees. 

This is not McDonald’s first book. In March, the University of Oklahoma Press published a voluminous account of how his ancestors, James Hughes Callahan and Sarah Medissa Day, settled Texas’ Guadalupe River basin in the 19th century.

McDonald suspects he won’t make money off of either endeavor, but has resolved to work with other Alcon retirees on how best to use any proceeds from his Alcon book.

In some ways, McDonald sees writing these books, even though he was trained as a biologist,  as an extension of what Alcon co-founder Alexander often preached.

“He said, ‘We’ve never done this before. We don’t know what we’re doing, but working together, we will figure it out,’ and that happened to me and everyone else there all the time,” McDonald said.

Today, the company gives out grants of up to $250,000 through its own research institute.In May, it reported first quarter sales of 2021 of $1.9 billion, a 5% increase compared with the same period last year.

About the author 

Tom McDonald and his dog Luca

Tom McDonald was born in Gorman, Texas, and grew up in Comanche County near the small community of Proctor. His father was the quintessential cattleman. He is a seventh-generation Texan. His wife, Shinko, was born and grew up in Osaka, Japan. She is a certified Japanese/English interpreter and has been a Texan for 31 years. They say their only child is their puppy, Luca. 

McDonald’s favorite quote: “Patience is virtue.”

“I always counseled people who worked with me, ‘Be patient. Read the book of Job,’” McDonald said.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

This story was updated on Wednesday, July 7 to correct Alcon’s current number of associates.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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