On January 7, medicine lost one of its most influential and forward-thinking oncologists when Dr. John Mendelsohn passed away in Houston at age 82. Dr. Mendelsohn was well respected for his contribution to medicine, his strong leadership, and his role advocating for cancer awareness, prevention and research. He is best known for serving as the president of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (MDA) from 1996 to 2011. Under his leadership, MDA grew in size, reach, and impact. As a result, MDA was named the top cancer hospital in the United States each year during his last five years as president. After he stepped down, Dr. Mendelsohn was still engaged with MDA physician scientists and helped promote personalized medicine for cancer therapies.
I first met Dr. Mendelsohn in 2008, when he was still president at MDA. He guided the creation and development of the “Medicine, Research and Society Policy Issue Series,” a joint collaboration between Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and MDA. Dr. Mendelsohn played an important role in guiding speaker and topic choices to make sure the series was focused on issues of importance and relevance to the community. Following his retirement as the president of MDA, Dr. Mendelsohn also stayed involved with the Baker Institute as the L.E. and Virginia Simmons Senior Fellow in Health and Technology Policy. As a fellow, he helped with the creation of the institute’s Center for Health and Biosciences. He also mentored junior faculty and students on their policy research related to the cost effectiveness of genomic medicine for cancer diagnosis and treatment. Further, Dr. Mendelsohn engaged with Rice students, giving several guest lectures and presentations. His research and experiences developing the cancer drug Erbitux proved to be invaluable to new graduate students interested in translational medicine. And his work in public policy showed students effective ways to engage policymakers.
During the time I knew Dr. Mendelsohn, he was unfailingly thoughtful, tireless, and willing to provide young faculty and students with astute, constructive advice. He listened carefully and responded in ways that left you gratified to be a beneficiary of his expertise. Personally, Dr. Mendelsohn’s advice helped guide my research career planning. He challenged me to do high-quality, well-designed, and impactful projects. Dr. Mendelsohn was a true Civic Scientist — a physician scientist who used his knowledge, accomplishments and skills to help bridge the gap between science and society. His energy, enthusiasm and intelligence will be greatly missed.
This post was authored by Dr. Kirstin Matthews, fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.