John Mendelson

Most cancer patients in Britain will never have heard of John Mendelsohn, president of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center from 1996 to 2011.

But cancer patients all over the world should be grateful for the work he oversaw at this hospital. This benefited patients far and wide.

Mendelsohn was a physician-scientist and hospital administrator who pioneered a new form of cancer therapy, before building the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center into one of the world’s pre-eminent cancer hospitals, He died Jan. 7 at his home in Houston, Texas. Ironically the cause was glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

The NHS could learn from him

Look for help and information on an NHS website, and this is often short on detail.  Seeking information I now turn first to the superb content on MD Anderson’s website.  People complain at the cost of cancer treatment in the USA, but there – for free – is informative and excellent guidance, which can be shown to doctors all over the world – and certainly helped me get better treatment.  I am constantly amazed at all that is up there fo free.  So I am grateful for his work.

When Mendelsohn took over in 1996 the hospital was facing severe budget cuts and low morale. The institution had hacked $90 million from its annual budget, and financial consultants had recommended additional cuts, including the shutting of entire departments.

Dr. Mendelsohn ignored their advice and embarked instead on an ambitious expansion effort. By the time he stepped down in 2011, MD Anderson had doubled its staff, quintupled the size of its facilities, increased its fundraising almost tenfold and raised hospital revenue from $726 million to $3.1 billion.

The hospital also began granting degrees in biomedical and health fields; developed teaching affiliations with schools in Europe, Asia and South America; and renewed its commitment to patient care, instituting a policy in which patients saw doctors within four days of calling for an appointment.

Its growth was fueled in large part by Dr. Mendelsohn himself, who as the face of the hospital spent about 23 nights a month fundraising and socializing at parties, according to one Wall Street Journal account, after putting in 12-hour days at MD Anderson. In the last five years of his tenure, U.S. News & World Report named MD Anderson the country’s finest cancer hospital.

Futility of some cancer treatment

“His firsthand experience with the pain, suffering and sometimes futility of cancer treatment really informed his whole approach to leadership,” Peter WT Pisters, MD Anderson’s current president, said in an interview. Dr. Mendelsohn, he added, “was the architect behind the advancement of what we now know as personalized cancer medicine. His work allows us to match treatments to the biology of an individual patient’s tumor.”

Dr. Mendelsohn’s work on personalized treatments began in the 1980s, when he was founding director of the University of California at San Diego’s cancer center. When research suggested that a group of proteins known as growth factors played a key role in the spread of cancer, Dr. Mendelsohn and a colleague, biologist Gordon H. Sato, proposed using an antibody to try to block one of the most intriguing of those proteins, epidermal growth factor.

For Dr. Mendelsohn, the drugs were just a few more steps in the battle to transform cancer into a treatable disease, akin to pneumonia or tuberculosis.

“We’ll never get rid of cancer completely; there are too many genetic issues for that to happen,” he once told the Dallas Morning News. “But our target is to eliminate cancer as a major health problem.”

John Mendelsohn was born in Cincinnati on Aug. 31, 1936. His mother was a homemaker, and his father sold suspenders and men’s belts.

Dr. Mendelsohn was studying physics and chemistry at Harvard University when he “found out I liked people as much as math, maybe more,” he said in an interview with the American Association for Cancer Research. Switching to a medicine track, he knocked on the door of James D. Watson, a new faculty member who went on to share a Nobel Prize for identifying the double-helix structure of DNA, and became his first undergraduate researcher.

After retiring as president, Dr. Mendelsohn returned to MD Anderson in 2012 to become a director of the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy. He also served as a senior fellow in health and technology policy at the Baker Institute, a public policy center at Rice University. Previously, he had served as a health policy adviser to President George H.W. Bush, who last year called him “one of the leading gladiators in the war against cancer — innovative, relentless, fearless,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

I never met him, but he affected my treatment

Peripheral Neuropathy can be frightening, and when I started experiencing symptoms my Oncologist pooh poohed my complaints. It wasn’t until I produced print-outs from MD Anderson’s website and shoved them under his nose that he stopped ignoring me.  Now his so- called ‘world class’ cancer hospital acknowledges the condition – but if it hadn’t been for the verification from MD Anderson it would have taken far longer.

Jigsaw Puzzles

Changes instituted by Dr. Mendelsohn provided comfort to patients and their families. One thing the NHS could copy is putting jisaw puzzles in waiting areas.  At the same time, he insisted the core of cancer treatment remained the same: “One doctor dealing with one patient, one at a time, making them feel like they’re the most important person in the world.”