publication date: Jan. 11, 2019
John Mendelsohn, translational researcher who led MD Anderson for 15 years, dies at 82
By Paul Goldberg
John Mendelsohn, president emeritus of MD Anderson Cancer Center and an elder statesman in oncology, died Jan. 7 at his home in Houston. He was 82.
Mendelsohn was diagnosed with glioblastoma 15 months ago.
“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,” Peter Pisters, president of MD Anderson, said in a statement. “In addition to impressive achievements, both as a scientist and as a leader, John was a role model and inspiration to so many.”
A video tribute to Mendelsohn, produced by MD Anderson, is posted here.
“John understood the importance and urgency of moving discoveries out of the laboratory and into patients, and he focused the institution on this goal,” said Margaret L. Kripke, professor emerita and former executive vice president and chief academic officer at MD Anderson. “He was helped in this mission by his colleague, friend, and tennis partner, Dr. Waun Ki Hong, the former head of the Division of Medicine, whom we also lost earlier this year. Together, they developed the premier translational research effort in cancer in the country, focused on partnerships between staff, clinicians and laboratory scientists.”
Kripke’s appreciation of Mendelsohn appears here.
“John Mendelsohn was a 24/7, 365-days-a-year president while at MD Anderson. He never let up,” said Raymond N. DuBois, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and dean of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, who served as provost and executive vice president at MD Anderson. “He was passionate about unraveling the mysteries of cancer and worked tirelessly to persuade others to join the crusades of this passion.”
DuBois’s appreciation of Mendelsohn appears here.
Mendelsohn served as president of MD Anderson from 1996 to 2011. During that time, the cancer center’s revenues increased from $726 million to $3.1 billion, its facilities grew from 3.4 million sq. ft. to 15.2 million sq. ft., the number of employees and patients doubled, and private philanthropy increased almost tenfold, with more than $2 billion raised, MD Anderson officials said.
Under Mendelsohn’s leadership, MD Anderson consistently received more research grants from NCI and conducted more therapeutic clinical trials to evaluate new drugs than any other comparable institution.
Mendelsohn was born in Cincinnati on Aug. 31, 1936, to Joe and Sarah Mendelsohn. He often repeated his uncle’s—Rabbi Victor Reichert’s—recipe for achieving happiness: “Take a long walk, read a good book and make a new friend.”
In “The Cell Game,” Alex Prud’Homme describes Mendelsohn’s father as “a classic ‘middleman’ who traveled from store to store in the Midwest, toting a sample case full of men’s apparel—belts, suspenders, cuff links—and his mother, a housewife and active community volunteer, had not been especially inclined toward science or medicine. But they always stressed the importance of education and encouraged John to ‘follow your nose.’
“[Mendelsohn] was raised Jewish; his wife was raised half Quaker and half Episcopalian; and they and their three boys attended a Unitarian church,” Prud’Homme wrote, citing interviews with Mendelsohn.
“Unlike many scientists, Mendelsohn, who has attended services at synagogues, churches, and Quaker meeting houses, is unembarrassed to say: ‘I am a religious person.’ When asked about the tension between science and religion, he answered by paraphrasing Einstein: ‘Science doesn’t always have all the answers. When you contemplate the vastness of the universe, you have to believe in a God.’”
John Mendelsohn (left), with Rakesh Kumar (center), and Zhen Fan in their research laboratory at MD Anderson in 1998.
Mendelsohn attended Walnut Hills High School and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biochemical sciences magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1958.
At Harvard, Mendelsohn was the first undergraduate to work in the laboratory of a new assistant professor, biochemist James D. Watson, who would later win the Nobel Prize in Medicine for identifying the structure of DNA. He graduated cum laude from Harvard Medical School in 1963.
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.
From 1963 to 1970, he took residency training in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and then completed a research fellowship at NIH and a fellowship in hematology-oncology at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis.
In 1970, Mendelsohn joined the newly established University of California San Diego School of Medicine, where he became the founding director of the UCSD cancer center. In the early 1980s, his research focused on blocking epidermal growth factor receptors.
Mendelsohn with former MD Anderson presidents Charles LeMaistre, left, and Ronald DePinho, M.D., right, at MD Anderson’s 75th anniversary gala on Nov 10, 2016.
In this work, Mendelsohn collaborated with Gordon Sato and others at UCSD. Their research led to development of the drug Erbitux (cetuximab), which is approved by FDA for the treatment of advanced colorectal cancer and head and neck cancer.
In 1985, Mendelsohn became chair of the Department of Medicine at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where he held the Winthrop Rockefeller Chair in Medical Oncology. He was also co-head of the Program in Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics and professor and vice chair of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
In 1996, Mendelsohn left these posts to become the second president of MD Anderson.
“Often, people in the field can be quite good at what they are doing and not be great at everything else. John Mendelsohn was a mensch, he was a great man, he loved his family, and he was a thoughtful, great guy,” said Samuel Waksal, whose company, ImClone Systems Inc. developed Erbitux. “When he became the head of MD Anderson, John exhibited his thoughtfulness about what was going on in the world of cancer, what went on in translational medicine and how to translate that into real patient care.
“This guy cared about curing people—and to me it’s heartbreaking that the one disease we never worked on was the disease that killed him—glioblastoma,” Waksal said to The Cancer Letter.
Mendelsohn throws out the first pitch at a Houston Astros baseball game in 2002.
– Photos courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
Though the initial trial of Erbitux resulted in a Refuse to File letter from FDA in December 2001, triggering a financial scandal, Mendelsohn, who was a member of ImClone’s board, was never accused of wrongdoing (The Cancer Letter, Jan. 4, 2002). Ultimately, the drug was approved. Mendelsohn also served on the board and the compensation committee of the energy company Enron at the time of its implosion. He was not accused of any wrongdoing in that case as well.
In August 2011, after 15 years as MD Anderson’s president, Mendelsohn took a six-month sabbatical to refresh his scientific skills with researchers at Harvard, MIT and other academic centers in the Boston area. He returned to the Houston institution in March 2012 to co-lead the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayad Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy.
Mendelsohn is survived by his wife, Anne, their sons Andrew and his wife, Tina, of London; Eric and his wife, Isabel, of Summit, NJ; 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