Robert S. Mendelsohn
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Robert S. Mendelsohn (1926 – 1988) was an American medical doctor and well-known critic of modern medicine. In his three published books, hundreds of columns, and numerous appearances on television and radio, he insisted that patients had the right to know about their medical conditions and their treatments, a radical argument in an era in which the side effects of medications and the risks of medical treatments were hardly known except to doctors.
An erudite, humorous and folksy writer, Dr. Mendelsohn promoted breastfeeding, questioned the necessity and safety of many childhood vaccinations, and inveighed against the overuse of diagnostic tests and x-rays. He first developed and disseminated many of his ideas in his syndicated newspaper column, “The People’s Doctor”, which he later turned into a medical newsletter of the same name, one of the first newsletters written for patients, not doctors to be published in the United States. These arguments later became staples of his books. Many of them, such as the idea that patients should question their doctors and do their own research, have gained traction in the years since they were published. Drugs that he criticized, such as Valium and Prozac, have waned in popularity as physicians and consumers have come to recognize the dangers of their side effects. The problem of the overuse of antibiotics, a frequent theme of his, is now widely recognized. Many hospitals now extend visiting hours, or have abolished them completely.
Dr. Mendelsohn was a frequent guest on television talk shows, including those hosted by Phil Donahue, Richard Simmons, Oprah Winfrey and Joan Rivers. He also appeared on hundreds of radio programs across North America, often opposite conventional physicians, including an executive of the American Medical Association.
A pediatrician certified by the American Board of Pediatrics, Dr. Mendelsohn warned about the risks of childhood immunizations. He was an outspoken advocate for breastfeeding, speaking often about the advantages of breastfeeding and the dangers of infant formula.
Dr. Mendelsohn viewed modern medicine as an idolatrous religion, frequently contrasting its values, such as "death with dignity," to those of other religions including his own faith, Judaism, which teaches "choose life." (speech to Brandeis University Hillel, Sept. 1976)
Dr. Mendelsohn was educated in Chicago public schools. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Chicago and was awarded his medical degree from the same institution in 1951. He also did postgraduate work at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis.
Dr. Mendelsohn interned at Cook County Hospital from 1951 to 1952. He did his pediatric residency at Michael Reese Hospital from 1952 to 1955 and served as attending physician at Michael Reese from 1955 to 1988.
Dr. Mendelsohn had a full-time private pediatric practice from 1956 to 1967, and continued to see patients of all ages on a consultancy basis until his death. He was an instructor in Pediatrics at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine from 1954 to 1964.
In 1969, after being fired from Project Head Start, he was named Associate Professor and Director, Division of Community Pediatrics, University of Illinois College of Medicine, a position he held until 1971. During that time, in 1970, his students presented him with the Raymond B. Allen Instructorship Award, known as the "Golden Apple Award", for excellence in teaching. Later he served as an adjunct professor at the College of Urban Sciences, University of Illinois, Circle Campus. From 1976-1988, he was Associate Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Preventive Medicine, and Community Health at the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine, University of Illinois, Chicago.
During the 60s and 70s, Dr. Mendelsohn began to consider himself a “medical heretic.” He later recalled the process in Dissent in Medicine:
In the late 1960s, my patients began to return to me with the diseases that I had previously created. The first group of patients were the ones with cancer of the thyroid gland, because, when I was trained at Michael Reese Hospital as a pediatric resident, I learned that the proper treatment for tonsillitis was X-ray therapy. Together with hundreds of other doctors, I prescribed X rays for the tonsils. This led to an epidemic of tens of thousands of cases of thyroid cancer. The second group of patients had permanently yellow-green stained teeth from tetracycline given for the treatment of acne. The third group were the DES sons and daughters. When I was a medical student at the University of Chicago, I participated in the DES experiments in which we gave women that female sex hormone diethylstilbestrol in a fruitless attempt to prevent miscarriages. It didn’t work, but it did leave us a generation of sons and daughters with tumors and malformations of the reproductive organs...
When I first recognized those events in the late 1960s, I thought that perhaps that was all past history in medicine. Doctors today must have learned from their mistakes…
But, when I look today at diagnostic ultrasound, immunizations, environmental pollution, amniocentesis, hospital deliveries, allergy treatment, and practically everything else in medicine, it is obvious that doctors haven’t changed at all. They are simply making a different, new set of mistakes. (Dissent, p. 8)
He served as director of Ambulatory Pediatric Services at the Michael Reese Hospital and Medical Center, Chicago, from 1971 to 1973. In 1974, he became the assistant to the executive vice president and CEO, and later served the hospital as Director of Development.
In 1976, he served a one-year term as Chairman of the Medical Licensure Committee of the State of Illinois.
From 1981 to 1982, Dr. Mendelsohn served as president of the National Health Federation (NHF). In 1986, the National Nutritional Foods Association presented him with its annual Rachel Carson Memorial Award for his “concerns for the protection of the American consumer and health freedoms.
Head Start Controversy
From 1967 to 1969, Dr. Mendelsohn served as National Director of Project Head Start’s Medical Consultation Service. He was forced to resign his Head Start position after he criticized the nation’s public school system. The New York Times on March 24, 1969 reported on Dr. Mendelsohn’s testimony:
“Head Start children faced a ‘deadening atmosphere: and lost their achievements when they entered public schools.’ Dr. Mendelsohn compared the Head Start child entering a regular public school to a ‘patient who has just been saved from pneumonia and gets hit by a truck ...’
Dr. Mendelsohn often recalled the incident of his being fired with amusement, and even dedicated his first book, Confessions of a Medical Heretic, “to all who gave me career opportunities which led to my present thinking, and to all who denied me opportunities which I mistakenly thought I wanted (p. viii)
Dr. Mendelsohn’s newspaper column, The People’s Doctor, was syndicated by the Chicago Daily News–New York News Syndicate, starting in the 1970s. In 1977, he published the first issue of his newsletter, “The People's Doctor,” a spinoff of the column, and continued to publish both the column and the newsletter until his death in 1988. The newsletter, which at its height was sent to approximately 7,000 subscribers across the United States, Canada and Europe, covered a range of topics, including “Anti-Arthritis Drugs: Are the ‘cures’ worse than the disease?”, “The Truth About Immunizations”, “Women as Guinea Pigs”, and “The Dangers of X-Rays”. Each issue included a column called "Another Opinion," written by Marian Tompson, founding President of La Leche League International, the organization of breastfeeding women where Dr. Mendelsohn served as a member of the Medical Advisory Board.
In the first of his books to attract widespread publicity, Confessions of a Medical Heretic (Contemporary Books 1979), Dr. Mendelsohn cautioned patients against blindly following the advice of doctors, and warned them to beware of hospitals. “A hospital is like a war,” he wrote. “You should try your best to stay out of it. And if you get into it, you should take along as many allies as possible and get out as fast as you can.” (Confessions, p. 67)
Published at a time when the side effects of medications and the risks of medical treatments were hardly known except to doctors, Dr. Mendelsohn insisted in Confessions that patients, too, had the right to such information. Describing his efforts to make the Physician's Desk Reference, the authoritative guide to medications and medical treatments, available to the public, Mendelsohn wrote that until two years before the publication of Confessions the PDR’s publisher “refused to distribute it to [sic] other than members of the medical profession. I wasn’t aware of this when I gave the PDR many plugs in my column and newsletter. Finally, I got a letter from the publisher telling me to please stop referring people to their book since they distributed it only to professionals. They felt that the public wouldn’t understand the PDR and would be confused by it. Well, I published that letter in my column and I commented that it was the first time in history a publisher didn’t want to sell his books. . .” (p. 40)
Dr. Mendelsohn also argued that the methods of modern medicine were often more dangerous than the diseases they were designed to diagnose and treat. He advised consumers to be suspicious of their doctors. “One of the unwritten rules in Modern Medicine is always to write a prescription for a new drug quickly, before all its side effects have come to the surface.” (p. 32)
In his 1981 book, Male Practice: How Doctors Manipulate Women, Dr. Mendelsohn presented data showing how women were subjected to more diagnostic tests and procedures than men. In psychiatry, women were prescribed more than twice the quantity of drugs as men for the same psychological symptoms (Male Practice, p. 60). Dr. Mendelsohn was concerned about surgery, too, especially the increasing rates of major obstetric and gynecologic surgical procedures such as hysterectomy, radical mastectomy, and cesarean section, which he felt led to an excess of morbidity and mortality, rather than improvements in women’s health. “Surgeons in this country operate twice as often as those in England and Wales, without any significant difference in therapeutic results! The only thing American women have to show for much of this knifemanship is the world’s largest collection of surgical scars.” (Male Practice, p. 79) He wrote about the dangers of hospital births, and believed that “the safest place for a healthy mother to have her baby is not in a hospital, but at home.” (Male Practice, p. 140)
In his 1984 book, How to Raise a Healthy Child…In Spite of Your Doctor, Dr. Mendelsohn maintained that parents, not doctors, are better qualified to determine the seriousness of childhood illnesses and encouraged parental input as a primary factor in all major decisions regarding the health of their children.
A frequent promoter of breastfeeding, Dr. Mendelsohn called breastmilk “nature’s perfect food,” and noted that “all responsible nutritional and pediatric authorities acknowledge its superiority over both infant formula and cow's milk.” (How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor, p. 47)
In the same year, he convened a meeting of nine eminent physicians—among them George Washington Crile, founder of the Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Henry Heimlich, developer of the life-saving Heimlich Maneuver, to discuss areas in which they rejected current medical and surgical standards of practice. He published the proceedings of this meeting in Dissent in Medicine, his last book, published in 1985.
- 1982, Male Practice: How Doctors Manipulate Women, ISBN 0-8092-5721-1
- 1987, How To Raise a Healthy Child In Spite of Your Doctor, NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company, ISBN 0-8092-4995-2
- 1991, Confessions of a Medical Heretic, ISBN 0-8092-7726-3 (This book was first published in 1980)
- 1980-1988, "The People’s Doctor Newsletter" published monthly
- 1985, "Dissent in Medicine…Nine Doctors Speak Out", ISBN 0-8092-5265-1
-  (News article citing his death certificate)
- Publicaciones GEA (Web informativa y publicación de la mayoría de la literatura de Robert Mendelsohn en español)