John Mendelsohn, MD, president emeritus of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and an internationally acclaimed leader in the field of medicine and scientist whose research helped pioneer a new type of cancer therapy, died Jan. 7 at his home in Houston. He was 82. The cause of death was glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer with which he was diagnosed 15 months ago.
Mendelsohn was the third president of MD Anderson, serving in that capacity from 1996 to 2011. During that time, he inspired significant achievements in research and patient care and directed substantial growth in staff, programs, facilities and philanthropy. During all of his last five years as president, MD Anderson was named the top cancer hospital in the “Best Hospitals” survey published annually by U.S. News & World Report. He retired from MD Anderson on Aug. 31, 2018.
“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 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 Legacy of Excellence in Patient Care, Research and Growth
After joining MD Anderson, Mendelsohn immediately 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. Under Mendelsohn’s leadership, MD Anderson consistently received more research grants from the National Cancer Institute and conducted more therapeutic clinical trials to evaluate new treatments than any other comparable institution. MD Anderson also became a degree‐ granting institution that confers degrees in biomedical sciences and allied health disciplines, and it established research partnerships and formed teaching affiliations with institutions in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America.
Mendelsohn’s legacy at MD Anderson also includes innovation in patient care and significant expansion of care and research facilities. 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. 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 of “Making Cancer History.”
During Mendelsohn’s tenure, MD Anderson’s revenue increased from $726 million to $3.1 billion, and its facilities grew from 3.4 million sq. ft. to 15.2 million sq. ft. The number of employees and patients served doubled and private philanthropy increased almost tenfold, with more than $2 billion raised.
Under his leadership, MD Anderson opened the Lowry and Peggy Mays Clinic; the 320-bed addition atop the Alkek Hospital; the T. Boone Pickens Academic Tower; the Proton Therapy Center; and the 126-room expansion of the Rotary House International Hotel. He also oversaw the creation of the Duncan Family Institute for Cancer Prevention and Risk Assessment in the Dan L. Duncan Building. In recognition of his many contributions, the John Mendelsohn Faculty Center was dedicated on Feb. 8, 2012.
One of his major achievements was planning The University of Texas Research Park south of MD Anderson’s main campus and launching the Red and Charline McCombs Institute for the Early Detection and Treatment of Cancer there. Each center was built so that basic and clinical researchers from multiple departments and different disciplines could collaborate more effectively.
“John Mendelsohn was a builder and a dreamer who made things happen. His passion for curing cancer in all forms helped transform the medical community in Houston, Texas and the nation and, in doing so, established MD Anderson as the pre-eminent cancer institution in the world,” said T. Boone Pickens, philanthropist and former chair of the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family as we pause together to commemorate his lasting legacy. We will one day succeed in ridding the world of cancer, and see John as a true pioneer in this fight.”
After completing his tenure as MD Anderson’s president in August 2011, Mendelsohn took a six-month sabbatical to refresh his scientific skills with prominent researchers at Harvard, MIT and other academic centers in the Boston area. He returned to MD Anderson in March 2012 to co-lead the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayad Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy (IPCT) and advance personalized medicine.