John Mendelsohn, M.D., 82, president emeritus of MD Anderson, internationally acclaimed leader in the field of medicine and scientist whose research helped pioneer a new type of cancer treatment, died of brain cancer in January at his home in Houston. Mendelsohn was the institution’s third president, from 1996 to 2011, inspiring significant achievements and leading substantial growth in staff, programs, facilities and philanthropy. He retired on Aug. 31, 2018.
After joining MD Anderson in 1996, Mendelsohn strengthened the institution’s focus on research-driven patient care, and he built a strong research program that emphasized the translation of scientific findings to improve patient care and prevention strategies. Mendelsohn’s legacy at MD Anderson also includes innovation in patient care and significant expansion of care and research facilities.
When he 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.
Innovations in care were both cultural and functional. He reorganized care around the patient rather than the department, enhancing collaboration with cross functional teams. He engaged employees in building a powerful culture around core values of caring, integrity and discovery, and he inspired all with the powerful tagline “Making Cancer History®.”
After completing his tenure in August 2011, Mendelsohn took a six-month sabbatical to refresh his scientific skills with prominent researchers at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other academic centers in the Boston area. He returned to MD Anderson in March 2012 to co-lead the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy and advance personalized medicine. Also that year, he joined Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy as the first L.E. and Virginia Simmons Senior Fellow in Health and Technology Policy.
Commited to applying science to human health
Before shifting his focus to leadership, Mendelsohn was a pioneering research scientist. In the early 1980s, he began researching ways to fight cancer by blocking epidermal growth factor receptors with Gordon Sato, Ph.D., and other colleagues at the University of California, San Diego. Their research led to development of the drug cetuximab, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved in 2004 for treating advanced colorectal cancer and in 2006 for head and neck cancer.
For his outstanding academic achievements, Mendelsohn was elected to several prestigious organizations, including the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences (formerly the Institute of Medicine) and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. He received numerous awards for his scientific work. Most recently, he was recognized with the 2018 Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science and the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s (ASCO) Distinguished Achievement Award. ASCO also named him as an Oncology Luminary in 2014. Mendelsohn was awarded Research! America’s Geoffrey Beene Builders of Science Award in 2013, the American Cancer Society’s Medal of Honor for Clinical Research in 2011, the 2008 Dorothy P. Landon–AACR Prize for Translational Cancer Research, the 2006 Dan David Prize, and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal in 2005. In 2012, he received the Sixth Annual American Association for Cancer Research Margaret Foti Award for Leadership and Extraordinary Achievements in Cancer Research, as well as MD Anderson’s Charles A. LeMaistre, M.D. Outstanding Achievement Award in Cancer.
Mendelsohn, along with his wife, Anne, was a driving force for several Houston nonprofit organizations. He chaired the Houston Grand Opera board of directors and served as vice chair of the board of BioHouston. The couple received numerous joint awards, 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.
Moments from the Mendelsohn era
1999: Mendelsohn with, from left, former President George H.W. Bush, Robert Mosbacher Sr. and Barbara Bush.
2006: At Polo on the Prairie, an annual MD Anderson fundraising event in west Texas. Photo by Steve Butman
2007: With T. Boone Pickens, Board of Visitors member, at the construction site of the Pickens Academic Tower.
2008: Mendelsohn with Dan and Jan Duncan, at the announcement of their $35 million gift. Photo by John Everett
2009: With wife Anne and Gerald and Barbara Hines at a reception at their Aspen home. Photo by Riccardo
2009: Mendelsohn with Regina Rogers at a Conversation with a Living Legend® Dallas. Photo by Nan Coulter
2010: Mendelsohn, Peggy and Lowry Mays, at a Conversation with a Living Legend®. Photo by Marks Moore
2010: Harry Longwell, campaign chair; Phyllis George, John and Anne Mendelsohn. Photo by PWL Studio
2011: Nancy Loeffler, Red McCombs, Mendelsohn; Charline McCombs at 70th anniversary gala. Photo by PWL Studio
2011: At 70th gala, Mendelsohn with Ernest Cockrell, Board of Visitors immediate past chair. Photo by PWL