Chapter 11: John Mendelsohn: MD Anderson's Secret Weapon


Chapter 11: John Mendelsohn: MD Anderson's Secret Weapon



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Mr. Stuyck begins this chapter on John Mendelsohn [Oral History Interview] by noting that he was a "dark-horse candidate" for president. He describes the interview process and how administrators were invited to participate. During an interview session, Mr. Stuyck found Dr. Mendelsohn to be very "energetic and wiry." Mr. Stuyck notes that MD Anderson had been ranked second to Memorial Sloan Kettering, but that changed under John Mendelsohn. He says the Dr. Mendelsohn arrived at just the right time in the institution's history: he describes Dr. Mendelsohn as "MD Anderson's secret weapon." He tells an anecdote about giving Dr. Mendelsohn advice"which he ignored.

Mr. Stuyck then talks about Dr. Mendelsohn's difficulties with the media during two conflict of interest cases involving his involvement with Imclone and Enron.

Mr. Stuyck explains how he prepared Dr. Mendelson for interviews with the media. He then describes how Dr. Mendelsohn handled his interview with a reporter from KTRK-TV, Channel 13, Wayne Dolcefino, about expenditures for furniture and art: Dr. Mendelsohn was very forthright and convincing, and the reporter let the story slide without publishing it. He then tells a story about a trip to Washington, D.C. for interviews at the Washington Post and PBS.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

Key MD Anderson Figures; Portraits; MD Anderson History; Growth and/or Change; Controversy; Institutional Politics; Personal Reflections, Memories of MD Anderson; MD Anderson Past; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; The MD Anderson Brand, Reputation

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


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Now, LeMaistre stayed eighteen years to the day, and he was succeeded by Mendelsohn, and Dr. Mendelsohn I know very well. And I know that actually he was a dark-horse candidate. This is another thing that occurred to me. The director of our pharmacy, a man named Roger Anderson, was on the search committee for the new president, and he was the only administrative staff person on the search committee. The rest were faculty and community people, and Roger decided that he would invite a handful of other administrative staff—there were six or seven of us—to come to each of his meetings with the candidates, and we would interview them around the table as a group. Roger really went to a lot of effort on this. He surveyed us afterwards. We ranked them all, that sort of thing, and there were a lot of candidates in the search at that time, and I went to at least ten meetings with different candidates as part of Roger’s invitation to come and meet people. I liked Dr. Mendelsohn immediately. I can remember vividly our session with him in the Searls conference room, and he was wiry and energetic and straight shooting. We all as a team, the administrative staff, I can remember the people who were there for the meeting, we all liked him. But there were several internal candidates and more likely candidates that were being considered. The regents were meeting here in Houston, and one of the things on their agenda was to pick a president, and on the evening of the regents’ meeting I was at home, and I got a call from a man named Art Dilly, and Art was the Executive Secretary to the UT Board of Regents. I had known him through Dr. LeMaistre, and he said, “Steve, we need to have a news conference tomorrow to announce the new president of MD Anderson, and we’re going to do it at ten o’clock in the morning, and I want you to get it organized and get the media there.” And I said, “Great, Mr. Dilly,” and he said, “Now, I'll tell you for preparation purposes who it’s going to be.” I was confident that it was going to be Dr. [Andrew] von Eschenbach or Dr. Balch. Those were the two, and he said, “It’s John Mendelsohn from Memorial Sloan-Kettering,” and personally I thought, “Great,” because I had met this guy, and I was very impressed by him. So I hung up the phone and started getting things organized for what we were going to do the next morning. [REDACTED] So we had the news conference the next morning, and the Chronicle, the lead on the Chronicle story the next day was to the effect that Mendelsohn was a dark-horse candidate chosen from outside to come. Well, he was such a natural for the job in such a very short period of time that it’s hard to believe that, but it’s the truth. We thought it was going to be an insider or a Texan who was going to be picked for it. There were several in that group, but I enjoyed that whole experience of meeting all these people and the very different kinds of personalities that came to MD Anderson.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Was that an issue, being either an MD Anderson insider or a Texan, to head up this institution?

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

I think people—I don’t really remember, but I think people were glad to have someone with that kind of luster coming to MD Anderson. I’ll tell you this, Tacey. I do remember very distinctly from the first twenty years that I was at MD Anderson many people here ‘wore the hair shirt,’ is the expression. We were number two, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering was number one, and they were New York, and Frank Sinatra was doing benefits for them and things like that, and we were down here in Houston, and we were definitely number two. And that started to change with LeMaistre and certainly changed with Mendelsohn and now to a person everyone here—I know it’s a tough time right now, but to a person everyone feels that MD Anderson is and has earned the place as the number one cancer center in the nation, but that is not how it was when I first came here. Frankly, I had never heard of Memorial Sloan-Kettering before I walked in the door to MD Anderson. But boy, I got an earful of it over and over again, and at that time, way back in the early days, they had a lion’s share of media coverage, a much more aggressive public relations program, and the Rockefellers and Benno Schmidt and others like that were going to bat for them. It was a different ballgame, and that has changed dramatically in especially the last fifteen years or so.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

When I was talking with Frederick Becker [Oral History Interview], he was talking too about how when he came there was more of an insider’s club, and one of his big goals was to create more diversity, certainly in the researchers who were here. But that’s probably the effect of a young institution.

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

We had a lot of people when I first arrived who had been here a long time. They’d already been here twenty years or so, and external recruitment was not what it was under LeMaistre. Bringing in [Margaret L.] Kripke [Oral History Interview] and [Isaiah J.] Fidler [Oral History Interview] and Garth Nicolson, that didn’t turn out too well, and quite a few others really bolstered the research program and brought in a new breadth to it, absolutely. [Interview subject note: "It was only Dr. Nicolson’s appointment that did not work out too well."

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And I think maybe it also—well, let me back up. I've asked a number of interview subjects about the whole Texas connection, and most of them have said maybe it was important in the beginning, but then suddenly the international flavor really evolved.

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

That’s exactly right. In the beginning, most of our funding came from the state of Texas. We certainly needed to build political alliances. Dr. Clark was great about doing that, and particularly Mendelsohn, coming from California and New York and other places, viewed MD Anderson as a national and international resource that deserved national and international attention and patients and dollars and things like that. Dr. LeMaistre was such an incredible person to work for that it’s hard for me to separate that sometimes from what he did for the institution. As a boss, he was unbelievable, every day, day in and day out. Dr. Mendelsohn was—he just did such great things for MD Anderson. He arrived at just the right time with a confidence. We’d just gone through this big downsizing. He made this decision pretty quickly to reinfuse funds into the institution. He tells the story—and it’s true—about going from department to department with this yellow legal pad and asking, “What can I do?” and writing these things down, which his successor never did. He made the decision to come here at a dicey time. He arrived at just the right time, and he has personally told me he left at just the right time as well. And for me, he was a more challenging person in some ways to work for than Dr. LeMaistre, because he was dissatisfied more frequently, not just with me but just in general. But he gave you all the resources you needed, and he could be extremely encouraging. I loved working for him and learning from him. He was a very impressive person to work for.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

And he certainly increased exponentially the international connections of the institution for sure.

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

We talked a little about this last time, but Jill Gabbe from the GabbeGroup and I always referred to John Mendelsohn as our MD Anderson secret weapon. He was great with media. He came across as so forthright and so bright and so enthusiastic and without any guile that it was a treat to watch him in action. We made these media trips all over the country so many times during his time, and I would always say the same thing to him. I'd say, “Now, when you go in there, remember, you're talking about cancer as a scientific issue and as a public policy issue, and you're not talking about MD Anderson. You’re a global statesmen, and then when you get done talking about that, you can talk about MD Anderson. By the way, when you think about cancer for your viewers or readers, think about MD Anderson as a resource.” It used to piss me off. He would go in there, and he would immediately start talking about MD Anderson. “We’re the number one cancer center, and we have 10,000 patients on clinical trials,” and this and that and the other, but it worked. It worked, because he’s so damn honest, and it was an amazing thing to see. We met with many, many reporters and editors and writers from all kinds of national publications over the years.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

You know, the story that you just told kind of goes to the heart of something I always wonder about myself, which is here we have an institution, and the mission is clearly research, education, cure cancer in Houston, in Texas, the country and the world. And yet this has to be and is a money-making institution, and how do you reconcile those two things? I don’t think that our culture—probably other cultures as well—have a good way of bringing together caring and moneymaking. People look with a bit of suspicion, and I think the statesmen, as you said, for the institution, for the disease, has to be able to finesse that concern in people’s minds.

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

He went through a rough patch for a while, as I think you know, with the ImClone and Enron board situations, but he handled it so well. It wasn’t like what we’re experiencing now. It wasn’t about MD Anderson. He happened to be tainted by people he was with and not by himself personally, and he acquitted himself beautifully every time he did interviews. We had worked out an agreement, he and I did, that if it was about ImClone and Erbitux he was going to talk to the media. He never shied away from doing that. If it was about Enron, he deferred to others on the board, because he was on there a very short period of time, only about three years, and he avoided most Enron interviews, and he had no financial penalty either when all was said and done. But what I loved about him so much was if there was someone calling about ImClone, he got on the phone or talked with them. Now, we had an experience. A reporter named Justin Gillis from the Washington Post did a major piece about conflict of interest and Dr. Mendelsohn, because patients on the Erbitux clinical trials in the informed consent document were not being told that he was the inventor of Erbitux. We fixed that once we realized it, but we spent a long time preparing for that interview. The guy flew down here to Houston, interviewed Mendelsohn in his office, and it was great to hear. “I am not afraid.” It wasn’t that he didn’t regret the fact that the clinical trials did not identify him, but we realized it happened, and we’re fixing it, and we sent letters to all of our patients. He did very well in all of that. There was some concern there for a while how all this would go, but he handled a lot of media during that time.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Now, what was your role during this as advisor to him?

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

Well, we talked about strategy a lot. I prepared him for interviews. I remember for the Justin Gillis interview I had a whole series of questions that I made up on note cards that we went through several times, and my questions were usually tough or obnoxious in the way they were put. They weren’t softballs. It was to try and get him ready. I don’t think he would mind my saying this. We had an issue come up with expenditure of funds by a component of MD Anderson that had come to Wayne Dolcefino’s attention. Wayne at the time was the investigative reporter for Channel 13 and had done some tough pieces about MD Anderson during the LeMaistre years. Wayne and his producer were coming out to meet with Dr. Mendelsohn to talk about this. I had arranged so that they would come without a camera and just have a conversation to begin. As we’re getting ready to go into the meeting, I get word that our attorney is going to sit in on the meeting, and I didn’t like the idea, because it was an informal session, and I'd gotten them to agree to leave the camera back. Two minutes before the session starts Mendelsohn picks up the phone and calls the attorney and says, “We won’t need you today.” He had agreed. The four of us sat in the room, and this is so uncommon for reporters, but I saw Mendelsohn convince that reporter that he was going to do the right thing about these issues. Not in exchange for not doing a story, but just you brought this to our attention, and he specifically explained exactly what he was going to do. And very uncharacteristically for Wayne, he said, “Well, I think we’re going to let this one pass. We’ll see how things go, Dr. Mendelsohn. We’ll be watching you in the future.” The story never ran.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

Wow, that’s amazing. And what was the issue?

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

It had to do with expenditure of funds for furniture and art and things like that. But I know the story I love to tell about Dr. Mendelsohn. A member of our Board of Visitors is a man named Tom Johnson, and Tom is the retired CEO of CNN and the former publisher of the L.A. Times. Tom had arranged a media trip for us to Washington, D.C. in the winter, and there was a big snowstorm coming through, and I said to Dr. Mendelsohn, “Maybe we ought to bail out on this trip and postpone it.” “Oh, Steve, we’re only going to be there one night. We can do this.” So he and I left, and we flew into Washington, and Tom Johnson came up from Atlanta, which is his hometown. The three of us were going to NPR, to PBS, and to the Washington Post. The first day we were there in the morning it was not bad. It was not too bad at all, and midway through the day it started to snow, and it snowed and it snowed, and the people at NPR canceled our session, because they weren’t coming into work. It snowed. I cannot describe to you the blizzard that came through, and our one night stay over in Washington ended up being three nights. It was Dr. Mendelsohn and me and maybe thirty people in this hotel. They were running out of things like bread, and we had dinner each night with Tom Johnson, the three of us, and whoever else happened to be in the hotel restaurant, and Tom would engage everybody in conversation. He’s a very remarkable man, and there might be another couple at the next table. We’d have these sessions, and Mendelsohn and I were the first people to leave. We got up early on the last morning, and bright sunshine, and the snow had stopped. There was a ton of snow, and we were the first people at Reagan Airport, I think, and we waited until we could get a first flight out of there to come home.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD:

So you never ended up having any of your media meetings?

Steve Stuyck, MPH :

Yes, we did. We had great ones. We had a session at the Washington Post with Donald Graham and a bunch of his editors and writers, and we had a really nice session at PBS with Judy Woodruff and a dozen or so reporters and editors and producers from PBS. But NPR canceled on us. We never got back to that one. But we had a car driving us through these—oh, it was mind-boggling, so fun ny. Anyway, Mendelsohn certainly did a tremendous amount in terms of fundraising and increasing our stature, all that sort of thing. It was great. He could be a pain sometimes, but I look back on him very, very fondly. [REDACTED]

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Chapter 11: John Mendelsohn: MD Anderson's Secret Weapon