John Mendelsohn, MD
John Mendelsohn, MD, President Emeritus of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, died of glioblastoma on January 7, 2019, at his home in Houston at age 82. He was an internationally acclaimed leader in the field of medicine and scientist whose research helped pioneer a new type of cancer therapy. Dr. Mendelsohn was the third president of MD Anderson, serving in that capacity from 1996 to 2011.
“MD Anderson had the great fortune of being led by John Mendelsohn for 15 years, and the strides made under his direction were nothing short of remarkable,” said Peter W.T. Pisters, MD, President of MD Anderson.
“John was always a great supporter of young investigators. As with so many others of my generation, he provided me with opportunity coupled with advice and counsel, always with a twinkle in his eye! His influence on the careers of so many of us and, in turn, his impact on so many thousands of patients over the years through his own remarkable scientific contributions, cannot be overstated. He will be missed and he will be remembered,” said ASCO Chief Executive Officer Clifford A. Hudis, MD, FACP, FASCO.
The Early Years
Dr. Mendelsohn was born in Cincinnati on August 31, 1936. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemical Sciences magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1958. Between college and medical school, Dr. Mendelsohn spent a year in Scotland as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Glasgow. He graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1963. He performed his residency training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; then he completed a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and a fellowship in hematology-oncology at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis.
Dr. Mendelsohn joined the newly established University of California, San Diego (UCSD), School of Medicine faculty in 1970, where he became the Founding Director of the UCSD Cancer Center. In 1985, Dr. Mendelsohn left UCSD to become Chair of the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), where he held the Winthrop Rockefeller Chair in Medical Oncology. During his tenure at MSK, he was Co-Head of the Program in Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics as well as Professor and Vice Chair of Medicine at Cornell Weill Medical College. In 1996, he left MSK to become President of MD Anderson.
Tenure at MD Anderson
After joining MD Anderson, Dr. Mendelsohn immediately strengthened the institution’s focus on research-driven patient care, building a strong research program that emphasized the translation of scientific findings to improve patient care and prevention strategies. Under his leadership, MD Anderson consistently received research grants from the National Cancer Institute and conducted therapeutic clinical trials to evaluate new treatments. MD Anderson also established research partnerships and formed teaching affiliations with institutions in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.
For more on the legacy of John Mendelsohn, MD, see an interview with several of his colleagues
When Dr. Mendelsohn took over as President, he toured the facility, yellow pad in hand, asking employees what they needed to excel in their work and tracking the patient experience from the first phone call through the end of treatment. Innovations in care were both cultural and functional. He reorganized care around the patient rather than the department, enhancing collaboration with cross-functional teams. He engaged employees in building a powerful culture around core values of caring, integrity, and discovery as well as inspired all with the powerful tagline of “Making Cancer History.”
During Dr. Mendelsohn’s tenure, MD Anderson’s revenue increased from $726 million to $3.1 billion, and its facilities grew from 3.4 million sq. ft. to 15.2 million sq. ft. One of his major achievements was planning The University of Texas Research Park, south of MD Anderson’s main campus, and launching the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer there. Each center was built so that basic and clinical researchers from multiple departments and different disciplines could collaborate more effectively.
A Legacy of Excellence in Research and Patient Care
Dr. Mendelsohn inspired significant achievements in research and patient care and directed substantial growth in staff, programs, facilities, and philanthropy. During each of his last 5 years as President, MD Anderson was named the top cancer hospital in the “Best Hospitals” survey published annually by U.S. News & World Report. He retired from MD Anderson on his birthday in the summer of 2018.
“Dr. Mendelsohn was an outstanding leader, mentor, and team builder, and I feel fortunate to have worked so closely with him to advance the work of the Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy [IPCT],” said Funda Meric-Bernstam, MD, Medical Director of the IPCT. “Together, with our team, we built one of the top precision oncology programs in the world, so patients could be matched with optimal therapies. Dr. Mendelsohn was the consummate physician-scientist who always thought about how we could better impact patient outcomes.”
In recognition of his outstanding academic achievements, Dr. Mendelsohn was elected to several prestigious organizations, including the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences (formerly the Institute of Medicine) and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. He also received numerous awards for his scientific work, including the 2018 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science. ASCO honored Dr. Mendelsohn for his significant contributions to oncology with the 2002 David A. Karnofsky Award and Lecture and the 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award.
“John was an inspirational leader, an innovative scientist, a dedicated mentor, and a great friend. He was the personification of ‘class act’ in every way,” said ASCO Chief Medical Officer Richard L. Schilsky, MD, FACP, FSCT, FASCO.
Reflections on Life
Reading deeply in humanist, Jewish, Quaker, and Unitarian thought, Dr. Mendelsohn was a firm believer in free will and the ability of individuals to shape not only their path in life, but also their values and personality. “I have willfully incorporated ways of approaching life’s challenges and opportunities into myself that I selected from role models,” Dr. Mendelsohn wrote in his memoirs. He believed that each of us “has a role in healing the world.” He felt called by the biblical injunction “Go forth and be a blessing,” to offer comfort, kindness, support, inspiration, and grace.
Dr. Mendelsohn believed success in applying science to human health comes through collaboration, bridging worlds from basic science to business, governmental organizations, health institutions, and philanthropic groups. He was renowned for his ability to create caring bonds with colleagues, friends, staff, and patients and to treat all people he touched with dignity and respect. His life’s work was as much about this as about science. He lived his life according to two principles: Live each day looking forward with the greatest hope and looking back with the least regret, and the last two words in the book Howards End by E. M. Forster: “Only connect!” ■