remembering dr. mendelsohn

MD Anderson's innovative and celebrated former president dies in Houston

MD Anderson's innovative and celebrated former president dies

Dr. John Mendelsohn MD Anderson
Dr. John Mendelsohn oversaw unprecedented growth at MD Anderson.  Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Houston’s star leader who shepherded M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s emergence as the nation’s No. 1 cancer hospital has died. Dr. John Mendelsohn, the cancer hospital’s former president, passed away on January 7 at his home in Houston. He was 82.

The venerable scientist and administrator succumbed to that which he spent his life flighting: cancer. Mendelsohn was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer; his battle lasted just 15 months.

Mendelsohn served as MD Anderson's president from 1996 to 2011, retiring on August 31, 2018 as the center's first president emeritus. Under his leadership, the center expanded patient care and research facilities and its revenue jumped from $726 million to $3.1 billion. Facilities grew from 3.4 million square feet to 15.2 million square feet. The number of employees and patients served doubled. Equally impressive: philanthropy exploded almost tenfold to $2 billion.

As Houstonians are no doubt aware, MD Anderson was named the top cancer hospital in the "Best Hospitals" survey published annually by U.S. News & World Report under Mendelshon’s guidance. He was a hands-on director: According to MD Anderson, 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. The hospital christened the John Mendelsohn Faculty Center in 2012 in his honor.

Before becoming one of the nation’s most regarded hospital presidents, 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. His work was the basis of personalized medicine, in which treatment is tailored to the individual patient. Mendelsohn’s work was also a precursor to that of MD Anderson’s Dr. Jim Allison, who recently won the Nobel Prize for his cancer research.

A mainstay of Houston philanthropic circles, Mendelsohn championed the Houston Grand Opera and BioHouston, Inc. The Cincinnati native spent time at the University of California - San Diego School of Medicine and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. Mendelsohn and his wife Anne were very active in the Houston, San Diego and New York communities, according to an MD Anderson statement.

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.

He is survived by his wife, Anne, and his sons, Andrew, Eric, and Jeffrey. A follower of 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, according to MD Anderson.

“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 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. He has left an indelible mark on this world, and he will be fondly remembered and greatly missed.”

A memorial service scheduled for Monday, January 14 at 11 am in the Lillie and Roy Cullen Theater at the Wortham Center. Memorial contributions may be made in Mendolsohn’s name to MD Anderson or Houston Grand Opera