John Mendelsohn, M.D., president emeritus of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and an internationally acclaimed leader in the field of medicine and scientist whose research helped pioneer a new type of cancer therapy, died Jan. 7 at his home in Houston. He was 82. The cause of death was glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer with which he was diagnosed 15 months ago.
Mendelsohn was the third president of MD Anderson, serving in that capacity from 1996 to 2011. During that time, he inspired significant achievements in research and patient care and directed substantial growth in staff, programs, facilities and philanthropy. During all of his last five 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 Aug. 31, 2018.
“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 WT Pisters, M.D., president of MD Anderson. “In addition to impressive achievements, both as a scientist and as a leader, John was a role model and inspiration to so many. He has left an indelible mark on this world, and he will be fondly remembered and greatly missed.”
A Legacy of Excellence in Patient Care, Research and Growth
After joining MD Anderson, Mendelsohn immediately strengthened the institution’s focus on research-driven patient care, and he built a strong research program that emphasized the translation of scientific findings to improve patient care and prevention strategies. Under Mendelsohn’s leadership, MD Anderson consistently received more research grants from the National Cancer Institute and conducted more therapeutic clinical trials to evaluate new treatments than any other comparable institution. MD Anderson also became a degree‐ granting institution that confers degrees in biomedical sciences and allied health disciplines, and it established research partnerships and formed teaching affiliations with institutions in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America.
Mendelsohn’s legacy at MD Anderson also includes innovation in patient care and significant expansion of care and research facilities. When 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 patient experience from the first phone call through 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,” and he inspired all with the powerful tagline of “Making Cancer History.”
During 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. The number of employees and patients served doubled and private philanthropy increased almost tenfold, with more than $2 billion raised.
Under his leadership, MD Anderson opened the Lowry and Peggy Mays Clinic; the 320-bed addition atop the Alkek Hospital; the T. Boone Pickens Academic Tower; the Proton Therapy Center; and the 126-room expansion of the Rotary House International Hotel. He also oversaw the creation of the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment in the Dan L. Duncan Building. In recognition of his many contributions, the John Mendelsohn Faculty Center was dedicated on Feb. 8, 2012.
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.
“John Mendelsohn was a builder and a dreamer who made things happen. His passion for curing cancer in all forms helped transform the medical community in Houston, Texas and the nation and, in doing so, established MD Anderson as the pre-eminent cancer institution in the world,” said T. Boone Pickens, philanthropist and former chair of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family as we pause together to commemorate his lasting legacy. We will one day succeed in ridding the world of cancer, and see John as a true pioneer in this fight.”
After completing his tenure as MD Anderson’s president in August 2011, Mendelsohn took a six-month sabbatical to refresh his scientific skills with prominent researchers at Harvard, MIT and other academic centers in the Boston area. He returned to MD Anderson in March 2012 to co-lead the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayad Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy (IPCT) and advance personalized medicine.
“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,” said Funda Meric-Bernstam, M.D., 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 2012, he also joined Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy as the first L. E. and Virginia Simmons Senior Fellow in Health and Technology Policy.
“John Mendelsohn was a titan of the medical community who extended the lives of many threatened by cancer, a community leader who strove to make Houston a world class city, and a wonderful human being who spent a lifetime caring for others,” said James A. Baker, III, 61st US Secretary of State and member of MD Anderson’s Board of Visitors since 1974. “We will all miss his brilliant mind, thoughtful personality and dedication to the world that surrounded him. My wife, Susan, and I send John’s wife, Anne, and their entire family our deepest sympathy.”
Committed to Applying Science to Human Health
Before shifting his focus to leadership, Mendelsohn was a pioneering research scientist in demonstrating how growth factors regulate the proliferation of cancer cells through a process that activates receptors on the cell surfaces. In the early 1980s, he began researching ways to fight cancer by blocking epidermal growth factor receptors with Gordon Sato and other colleagues at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Their research led to development of the drug cetuximab (Erbitux™), which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in 2004 for treating advanced colorectal cancer and in 2006 for head and neck cancer.
In recognition of his outstanding academic achievements, Mendelsohn was elected to several of the nation’s most 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. Most recently, he was recognized with the 2018 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science and with the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Distinguished Achievement Award. ASCO also named him as an Oncology Luminary in 2014. Mendelsohn was awarded the Research America’s Builders of Science Award in 2013, the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor for Clinical Research in 2011, the 2008 Dorothy P. Landon – AACR Prize for Translational Cancer Research, the 2006 Dan David Prize, and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal in 2005. He also received the Sixth Annual American Association for Cancer Research Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research in 2012, the same year that his MD Anderson peers chose him for the Charles A. LeMaistre, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in Cancer.
Mendelsohn also was a driving force for several Houston nonprofit organizations. He chaired the board of directors of the Houston Grand Opera and served as vice chair of the board of BioHouston, Inc., a nonprofit corporation created in 2001 to promote the Houston area as a global competitor in life science and biotechnology commercialization. As a leader of the organization, he worked to advance collaborative research between academia and industry.
The Early Years
Mendelsohn was born in Cincinnati on Aug. 31, 1936, to Joe and Sarah Mendelsohn, in a neighborhood full of close relatives. He attended Walnut Hills High School and went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1958. While there, he was the first undergraduate student to work in the laboratory of a new assistant professor, biochemist James D. Watson, Ph.D., who later won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying the structure of DNA.
Between college and medical school, 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. From 1963 to 1970, he took residency training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and then completed a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and a fellowship in hematology-oncology at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis.
Mendelsohn joined the newly established UCSD School of Medicine faculty in 1970 where he became the founding director of the UCSD cancer center. It was during this time that he researched the monoclonal antibody that later became the drug Erbitux, used to treat thousands of head, neck, colorectal and lung cancer patients.
In 1985, Mendelsohn left UCSD to become chair of the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he held the Winthrop Rockefeller Chair in Medical Oncology. During his tenure, 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 his posts in New York to become president of MD Anderson.
A Couples’ Dedication to Others
Mendelsohn and his wife Anne were very active in the Houston, San Diego and New York communities. “We used the team approach to planning the personal and professional aspects of our lives,” Mendelsohn was quoted in an MD Anderson publication. “Teamwork is part of the commitment we made in creating a family and sharing love and life together.” The couple received numerous joint awards in recognition of their civic efforts, including the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Award for Public Service, the Houston Technology Center Celebration of Entrepreneurs Award, the Guidepost Magazine Norman Vincent and Ruth Stafford Peale Humanitarian Award and the Teach for America – Houston annual award for advancing education.
Reflections From the Mendelsohn Family
Reading deeply in humanist, Jewish, Quaker and Unitarian thought, 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,” 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. Mendelsohn conveyed a profound excitement for life.
While on his Fulbright Scholarship, Mendelsohn developed his love of literature, music, philosophy and travel. For the remainder of his life, traveling was an immersive experience, informed by extensive reading of history and historical fiction about each new destination. He was fond of recalling that the family drove thousands of miles through Western Europe visiting the great museums and cultural sites during their nine-month sabbatical in Amsterdam in 1979.
Soon after starting medical school, Mendelsohn met his wife, Anne Charles, a research chemist at Polaroid, one of the few companies at that time to hire women as research scientists. They were deeply in love for nearly 60 years of marriage and she played a huge role in his life’s work.
The Mendelsohns spent 15 years living in La Jolla, raising their three sons, and creating a deeply engaged lifestyle in culture and the arts. Mendelsohn was passionate about classical music, with a special appreciation for Wagner operas, which he listened to late into the evening at his home office. Even in his 70s, Mendelsohn found new ways to engage with music when he started playing the violin after finding inspiration at his grandson’s violin lesson. The Mendelsohns filled their family homes with books, bedside tables disappearing beneath the stacks. They also explored the uniqueness of each place they lived. In California, Mendelsohn loved to run barefoot on the beach, play tennis and take the family backpacking in the Sierras and the high desert. An often-repeated quote from his uncle Rabbi Victor Reichert on living a happy, fulfilling life was to “take a long walk, read a good book and make a new friend.”
Mendelsohn believed success in applying science to human health comes through collaboration, bridging worlds from basic science to business, governmental organizations, health institutions and philanthropists. 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 work is as much about this as the 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 Howard’s End: “Only connect.”
“We can’t thank MD Anderson enough for the care and love that so many showed John as he engaged in his personal battle against cancer, a disease he dedicated his entire adult life to eradicating,” said the Mendelsohn family as they expressed their gratitude to the physicians and staff at MD Anderson as well as the home care providers who cared for Mendelsohn over the last 15 months.
Mendelsohn is survived by his wife, Anne, their sons Andrew and his wife, Tina, of London, England; Eric and his wife, Isabel, of Summit, New Jersey; and Jeffrey of San Francisco; and eight grandchildren.
Memorial service scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14 at 11 a.m. in the Lillie and Roy Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center. RSVP here.
Memorial contributions may be made to the Anne and John Mendelsohn Chair in Cancer Research at MD AndersonCancer Center, P.O. Box 4486, Houston, TX 77210-4486 or www.mdanderson.org/gifts or the Houston Grand Opera, 510 Preston St., Houston, Texas 77002 or https://www.houstongrandopera.org/support-us/donation.