Robert S. Mendelsohn, medicine’s well-known maverick who claimed that doctors often did more to cripple than to cure, has died. The Chicago Tribune reported that he had died April 5 at his home in Evanston, Ill.
The death certificate said he was 61 and had died of acute cardiac arrest. Mendelsohn also suffered from diabetes.
A successful pediatrician in Illinois, Mendelsohn’s written and spoken advice flew in the face of nearly all medical opinion.
He opposed immunization for children, be it for polio or measles, claiming that the shots are dangerous and worthless.
Claim on Polio Vaccine
He claimed that polio did not disappear because of the vaccine but went away by itself.
He warned expectant mothers to avoid prenatal care and said ultrasound scanning of the fetus may cause leukemia.
He advocated home birth for babies.
These and similar views had placed him for years at loggerheads with his fellow physicians and their umbrella organization, the American Medical Assn. The association would not even comment on Mendelsohn’s utterances, telling a Times reporter in 1984 that “discussing Mendelsohn is a no-win proposition. We don’t even want to get tangled up with him in print.”
In “Confessions of a Medical Heretic” in 1979, probably Mendelsohn’s best-known book, the gadfly physician likened modern medicine to a failed religion and said doctors acted more like priests than scientists.
Credentials Above Reproach
If his opinions were outrageous to many, his credentials were above reproach.
He graduated from the prestigious Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago in 1951 and held various positions on the faculty of the University of Illinois’ Abraham School of Medicine.
He was director of ambulatory pediatric services at Chicago’s prominent Michael Reese Medical Center but was fired from that job after his columns and books appeared.
He also was asked to resign as national medical director for Project Head Start after telling a congressional committee that many of the good things that program had achieved were lost to the intellectually “deadening” public school system.
Decided to Go Public
It was that 1969 experience, he said, that made him go public with his complaints about the medical establishment, including a newsletter, the syndicated column and radio shows.
The Chicago Tribune quoted a fellow physician in Franklin Park, Ill., as remembering Mendelsohn as a “very pleasant and kind man.” Dr. Gregory White said, “he became a critic because he wanted doctors to be all they should and could be. He was an idealist, not an impractical idealist but one who wanted doctors to live up to the highest ideals of medicine.”