Dr. Mendelsohn’s wit and wisdom is remembered by his patients, family, friends, students, and colleagues. We encourage you to get in touch and send in your memories.
Dad felt that the hospital, with all of its interventions into a natural process, was a dangerous place to have a baby. One of his favorite lines was: “An obstetrician is like a fireman. They both rush in and save lives. The only difference is: the fireman didn’t start the fire.”
– Ruth Lockshin, Dr. Mendelsohn’s daughter, 2014
When did we know our father was developing his ideas? The family outings he chose for us told us about his ideas as much as any actual talking. One day when my sister and I were little, he drove us out to see some impoverished small towns outside of Chicago, just to show us how the people lived; in shacks on unpaved dirt roads (Pozin-Robbins, IL). I think we also saw the town of Pullman, Illinois, a town settled by and for the railroad workers.
He invited me to come along with him when he visited the state mental hospitals in Dixon and Elgin, Illinois where he was a mental health consultant. I think he let the place speak for itself as we walked and looked around the wards, and I came to feel as he did, that a state mental institution was a pretty horrible place to be, and there didn’t seem to be much to do to make it better. (He joked to us that he held on tight to his key as he went through locked wards.)
We visited his clinic at the Michael Reese Outpatient Department, where he told us how he set up the department so that the nurses were mostly in charge. Nurses were trained to take the patients’ history, do physical exams, and then they told the doctors what needed to be done. This was in the 60s, well before Nurse Practitioners began to take on expanded roles in this country.
– Sally Mendelsohn, Dr. Mendelsohn’s daughter, 2004
I was crazy about Bob. Somehow we were alike. He was more courageous and neurotic than I. His views were dangerous, controversial, maybe creative…He knew a lot more than pediatrics. He knew a lot of Judaism, and a lot about people. His relationship with Rita and his daughters was very unique.
I knew him better as he got older. Things drew us together—shared values, views of the world. We resigned from the same boards: the College of Jewish Studies, peace organizations, both of which turned out to be less than we thought. So we could invoke Judaism, social justice, and peace.
He also took care of my kids when they were very young. He and I were both interested in old people, and what we’re doing about that. Funerals and Jewish undertakers – people buried by faceless non-Jewish international corporations. All what Bob might have predicted or did predict.
He was pushing for a radical revision of medical ideas and because of him, we – even doctors, politicians, and others – talked about it. He was a valuable goad to awareness and action. He predicted that medicine was evolving into a process based on machinery, and in the end it would act like a machine. The opposite of house calls.
– Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Chicago, 2004
Not a day passes that I do not think of Bob Mendelsohn. He totally changed my life.
One day, Bob was invited to be the guest on the childrens’ show, The Garfield Goose Show with Frazier Thomas. This show was live, and Bob was expected to give some friendly pediatrician advice. Well, the producers got more than they bargained for. Frazier asked him a number of innocent questions, but then made a tactical error: He asked Bob “What should kids do when the pediatrician tells them they are going to have to have a shot?” Bob turned straight to the camera, looked right into the lens, and replied “They should ask the doctor, ‘Is this shot really necessary?’”
One of Bob’s jobs at the University of Illinois Hospital was running the well baby clinic, which was every Friday. After the clinic, Bob moderated a panel discussion, which was very popular, and attracted the resident physicians, medical students and nurses on staff at the clinic, as well as many others from around the hospital. The cool twist, and, believe me, this was very unique in any medical school setting, was that the panelists for the discussion were the mothers who had brought their babies to the clinic that afternoon. These were mothers of every ethnic variety, but what they had in common was that they were all poor. We had all, as medical students, been inculcated with the idea that these mothers were inadequate, if not downright incompetent, and in desperate need of our advice. By masterfully interviewing these mothers, Bob taught us how wrong we were. One by one, they revealed a deep understanding of motherhood and of their infants, often using folk wisdom that had been handed down to them. This taught us all humility, a rare trait in physicians, and respect for mothers, even poor ones. It was a powerful lesson. I remember one time, one of the mothers related some stupid advice her resident physician had offered, advice she clearly knew was wrong, but she said she did not tell him so, “because I did not want the young doctor to feel bad.” I loved that one.
Once, Bob organized a class for medical students. He had arranged for a family with two hemophiliac children to come to the hospital and teach the students what it was like to deal with such a difficult chronic disease. Again, he made the patients the teachers, a wonderful idea. But—the family did not show up, so he phoned them, and asked if we could all come to them. Unheard of! They agreed, so Bob grabbed some Hawaiian Punch and Oreos for their kids, and we all piled into cars, and drove to their street in the middle of the worst neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. We warily got out of our cars, a bunch of white medical students in our little white coats, while a hundred black faces poked out of windows up and down the street, not knowing what to make of this unusual sight. We had the class inside their rundown apartment, all sitting on the floor. I do not recall what we learned about hemophilia that day, but I do know what we learned about humility and respect for patients, even the very poorest ones among us.
– Dr. Robert Minkus, former student of Dr. Mendelsohn’s, 2015