In 2007, I was happily working as a newly minted director of the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville and continuing the tradition that Dr. Hal Moses had established in building a world-class cancer center.
However, one day, I received a phone call from Houston, and it was from John Mendelsohn’s office. I knew who he was based on his accomplishments, but didn’t really know him in person.
John said that he was in the process of building an effort to fight cancer on all levels at MD Anderson. To native Texans, such as myself, MD Anderson is the Mecca for loved ones and relatives facing a diagnosis of cancer. (In fact, my great aunt, who lived in our remote rural community, was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer—a virtual death sentence at the time—but was able to get an appointment at MD Anderson, where the doctors made a huge impact on her disease.)
Mendelsohn holds the piece of Georgia Etowah marble that was used in the facade of the original MD Anderson Hospital. He and Provost and EVP Raymond DuBois (left) received a plaque from NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, who took the piece of marble with him to the International Space Station. – Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
After several phone conversations, John persuaded me to come down to Houston for a visit. On that visit, John took command of the conversation and shared with me what his plans were with regards to creating a number of new centers and research institutes at MDACC.
He had an uncanny skill for convincing people that he knew what was needed and that simply by joining his team you would be headed in the right direction.
After much thought and consideration, I accepted John’s offer to become the founding provost and executive vice president at MD Anderson later that year.
This decision is one that I will never regret, although it did complicate my family’s plans at the time. On the other hand, it immediately put me on a path of interfacing with all of the major players in the cancer field worldwide.
Mendelsohn with former President George H.W. Bush in 2001. – Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center
John Mendelsohn was a 24/7, 365-days-a-year president while at MD Anderson. He never let up. He was passionate about unraveling the mysteries of cancer and worked tirelessly to persuade others to join the crusades of this passion.
He had a remarkable gift for taking highly complex, technical ideas and concepts—e.g., the unique molecular pathway of a particular tumor or the efficacy of a new line of treatment options—and explaining them in ways understandable to people who were not scientists or physicians.
In so doing, he was able to get others to realize that beating back the 200 or more diseases we label “cancer” would require the lay public and legislators supporting the efforts of researchers and clinicians around the world.
He knew the science. He knew the medicine. Through well thought-out analogies, descriptions and metaphors, he enlisted people to care about and invest in curing and treating cancer.
Millions of lives were affected by Dr. Mendelsohn’s contributions. He leaves quite a legacy. He was truly a great man, inspirational leader, advocate and tireless administrator who unfortunately succumbed to a disease that he fought so hard to cure.
Working with John on a daily basis brought a number of interesting experiences that few would encounter elsewhere. I remember one day being invited to lunch with John and a shuttle astronaut from NASA.
I couldn’t imagine what this meeting was about and how it could have an impact on cancer care or cancer research, but didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation. Turns out that a sample of the Georgia Etowah pink marble that adorned the facade of the original MD Anderson Hospital had been taken up in space on a shuttle mission to the International Space Station by Tim Kopra.
Time magazine, in its Dec. 13, 1954, issue that had Ernest Hemingway on the cover, referred to the impressive new cancer hospital as “the pink palace of healing,” because of the color of this marble and the patient-centered care provided at the hospital.
John was very engaging and made sure the Tim understood the importance of that marble being transported up to the space station, while Tim was able to share with us his experiences with the space program and that several family members and loved ones employed at NASA had actually been treated for their cancer at the MD Anderson Hospital, so this mission meant quite a bit to the whole NASA family.
It was great seeing John in action and how he made sure that Tim understood what MD Anderson was all about and why it was so important to have the support from the public and our donors so that we could achieve our mission.
On another occasion, John invited me to join him and others for a visit with former President George H.W. Bush at his home in Kennebunkport.
President Bush was extremely interested and supportive of MD Anderson and a previous chair of the board of visitors. We were warmly welcomed by both Barbara and President Bush.
Immediately, they wanted to know what was going on at MD Anderson and how they could help us to achieve success in our fight against cancer. John was able to communicate with the president in a clear and concise manner that delineated what our biggest current challenges were and how President Bush could help us to overcome those challenges.
Having connections and support from current and previous political leaders at the highest level was crucial for the success of MD Anderson. It became clear to me that John’s skills in managing those relationships and making sure that everyone understood how important our work was and precisely how they could become involved was incredible.
Dr. Mendelsohn’s dedication and work ethic were legend. He always wanted to know more about what we were doing on the research front and how we could make the most impact.
Did we have the right technologies and equipment available to our research team? Were they getting all the support they needed to be successful? Which new recruits were needed to fulfill our mission and be on the cutting edge of science and medicine?
Because of those efforts, MD Anderson was elevated to a higher level in cancer research and cancer care.
Without John, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for MD Anderson to accomplish its goals in making cancer history.
The author is professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and dean of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, former provost and executive vice president at MD Anderson.