John Mendelsohn, Former MD Anderson Cancer Center President, Dies
John Mendelsohn, Former MD Anderson Cancer Center President, Dies

John Mendelsohn, Former MD Anderson Cancer Center President, Dies

The scientist and clinician helped develop a new form of cancer therapy, using a monoclonal antibody to treat head, neck, colorectal, and lung cancers.

Jan 10, 2019
Ashley Yeager

ABOVE: COURTESY OF MD ANDERSON

Cancer therapy pioneer John Mendelsohn died from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, on Monday (January 7). He was 82. Mendelsohn was known for his development of a monoclonal antibody therapy now used to treat a number of different malignancies.

Mendelsohn was president emeritus of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and held the position from 1996 to 2011. After stepping down as president, he took a six-month sabbatical, then returned to MD Anderson to co-lead the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayad Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy and also joined Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

“Mendelsohn was a titan of the medical community who extended the lives of many threatened by cancer, a community leader who strove to make Houston a world class city, and a wonderful human being who spent a lifetime caring for others,” Baker, the namesake of the institute who was the 61st US Secretary of State and a current member of MD Anderson’s Board of Visitors since 1974, says in a statement. “We will all miss his brilliant mind, thoughtful personality and dedication to the world that surrounded him.”

Born in Cincinnati in 1936, Mendelsohn grew up surrounded by close relatives. After high school, he chose to leave Ohio and attend Harvard University, where he worked in the lab of then newly minted assistant professor James Watson. Mendelsohn graduated in 1958 and then spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He returned to Harvard for medical school, graduated in 1963, and then took a residency in internal medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He went on to do a research fellowship at the National Institutes of Health and a hematology-oncology fellowship at Washington University Medical School in St. Louis.

In 1970, Mendelsohn moved to California, joining the University of California, San Diego’s School of Medicine. There, he studied monoclonal antibodies, in particular, one that was later developed in to a drug called Erbitux, which is now used to treat head, neck, colorectal, and lung cancer patients. From 1985 to 1996, he worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and also Weill Cornell Medical College. 

In 1996, he moved to MD Anderson. At the time, the cancer center was suffering; a consultant’s report suggested cutting several departments. Mendelsohn didn’t heed the advice.

Under his leadership, “private philanthropy increased almost tenfold, its budget quadrupled, its space tripled and its number of employees and patients doubled,” The Houston Chronicle reports. National Cancer Institute grants and clinical trials also increased.

Mendelsohn was “one of the leading gladiators in the war against cancer,” the late President George H. W. Bush said of Mendelsohn last year, according to The Chronicle. The two were friends and Bush even consulted him on some matters from the White House during his presidency. Mendelsohn, Bush said, was “innovative, relentless, fearless.”

Mendelsohn is survived by his wife, Anne, their three sons, and eight grandchildren.