By Claire Panosian Dunavan, MD.
As the 100th birthday of Dr. Sherman M. Mellinkoff — the second dean of the UCLA School of Medicine — approaches, a colleague and friend shares memories of the man who guided a young institution to become a world leader in medical education and research.
“From as early as I can remember, I remember him sitting in his chair at night… . He was in that chair with a book and a light, and he was reading. And on the weekends, he was in that chair reading. “In the living room, there were also two wooden stands with dictionaries permanently open. And those were like holy books, you know? He’d often look things up in the dictionaries or the encyclopedia and get the facts just right. “I took it for granted, but he always had a quote for every situation from the Bible or Shakespeare, or from history or politics or literature. When you’re little, you think: Well, every kid grows up this way. “What I know now is that he loved it. That’s all — he just loved it.”
— Albert Mellinkoff, December 2018
In my home office in Pasadena, a pleated, cardboard file bulges with UCLA paraphernalia, including dozens of letters from Sherman M. Mellinkoff, MD, the second dean of the UCLA School of Medicine. For 24 years, from 1962 to 1986, he led the medical school with wisdom, kindness and a verve that was unmistakably “Sherm.” In 1987, one year after Dr. Mellinkoff retired as dean, I arrived on campus. By then, I was also a medical writer at Lifetime TV, a swerve that was totally unplanned.
By 1990, Sherm and I were friends — another unplanned-but-wonderful serendipity.
Now, 34 years have passed since Sherm went emeritus, and almost four years have passed since he died, at the age of 96. As we close in on this year’s centenary of his birth, I’ve started to wonder, what exactly sparked our rapport? Yes, we had overlapping history: families rooted in Los Angeles, the same alma mater (Stanford), witnessing UCLA Medical Center’s birth. But here’s the real answer, as I see it: What cemented my friendship with Sherm was a shared love of literature and human story. The two of us also shared a curious path. While still in high school, we both were drawn to everything but science, yet somehow got caught in medicine’s spell.
If I had taped my conversations with Sherm, I could write a book. But, of course, I never recorded my friend and mentor — nor do I plan to write that book. So here, instead, is a nostalgic tribute laced with words straight from the source.
ALBERT MELLINKOFF, SHERM AND JUNE’S SON, is a former New York-based actor who now practices as a clinical psychologist. One day, while he was visiting our house, I asked Albert if he could recall one of his father’s favorite quotes. Albert laughed, then quickly recited, “How sharp as the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” from King Lear, while searching for something more elusive. “‘Into the lives of all men, a little folly now and then?’ Does that ring a bell for you?” he asked. Indeed it did. Sherm was formidably intellectual, but he also loved humor.
Need more proof? Soon after Sherm and I got to talking, we discovered our joint affinity for Walt Kelly, the creator of the comic strip Pogo; James Thurber; Damon Runyon; and, my personal favorite, Don Marquis, a popular 1930s columnist who channeled a literary cockroach named Archy who communicated by nightly jumping on the keys of a typewriter belonging to a small-town reporter in Dobbs Ferry, New York. This explains one of my early notes to Sherm, which included a classic Archy riff (“i have noticed that when chickens quit quarreling over their food that there is often enough for all of them i wonder if it might not be the same with the human race”), along with some trivia. Sherm wrote back: “Thank you for sharing with me Damon Runyon’s birthday — not to be compared with Beethoven’s [they fell on the same date] but still evoking memories. … The delightful quotation from Don Marquis … had long disappeared from my declining temporal lobes, but it is particularly handy to have now when it applies so poignantly to so many places on earth.”
Newspaper scribes aside, Mark Twain was Sherm’s all-time favorite pundit and writer, bar none, with the possible exception of Anton Chekhov. But what may surprise even Sherm’s closest friends was his favorite title by Twain, namely, a late, funnyyet- dark work serialized in The Century Magazine in 1893 and published as a novel the following year. Naturally, as soon as Sherm recommended Puddn’head Wilson, I quickly read and admired its striking weave of farce, dastardly deeds and pointed messages about race and identity. Seen through modern eyes, this story of a master and slave switched at birth also evokes what now are called “social determinants of health.” Simply put, the book spoke deeply both to Sherm’s wit and his strong sense of fairness.
Which brings me to something biographical. While living in Baltimore in the mid-1940s and early-1950s, Sherm himself witnessed racism countered by valor and grace. One of his all-time heroes at Johns Hopkins Hospital (where, after serving two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, he completed his residency and was chief resident), was the former janitor Vivien Thomas, an African American who was, by then, surgeon Alfred Blalock’s indispensable associate. After decades of brilliant innovation, Thomas ultimately earned an honorary doctorate for the many contributions he made to Dr. Blalock’s pioneering operations for infants born with congenital heart disease. Moving from a provocative book by Twain to a discussion of modern medical history and social justice is just one example of the richness of visiting with Sherm, whose unblinking realism never sapped his lifelong zeal to help make the world a better, more enlightened place.
CLOSE YOUR EYES AND
PICTURE A SUITE IN 200
MEDICAL PLAZA CIRCA 2000.
On its counters are charts and articles, a printer, a coffee pot and condiments, and at its center table a rotating throng of doctors, nurses and staff. On this Thursday, however, a close-knit medical band including Sherm has gathered to discuss perplexing woes from high-spiking fevers to sudden attacks of incapacitating pain to ominously elevated levels of urinary protein. The mysterious disease in the clinic’s cross-hairs on this day? Familial Mediterranean fever (FMF). Sherm loved the Sherlock Holmes-ian side of medicine. And never were his own skills of detection more fully revealed than in the 1950s, when he identified UCLA’s first FMF patient. It started when our future dean, then a young gastroenterologist, arrived at UCLA’s fledgling ER to settle a bet between a medical intern and a surgical resident. Did their 36-year-old patient truly have peritonitis or was he malingering?
As it turns out, neither was true. After Sherm spoke with the man, who, since childhood, had endured thousands of attacks of fever and pain, the words of a former professor echoed in his ear: “Nobody knows what this disease is, but in Lebanon, it is called the Armenian Disease.” Bottom line: Both trainees lost their wager, and the grateful patient recruited many more FMF sufferers to UCLA, which soon excelled at treating the rare, genetic disorder. More evidence of Sherm’s love of medical detail and patient story can be found in sentences he wrote after reading one of my own “medical mysteries” published in Discover magazine. The disease it depicted was the inhaled fungal blight known as Valley fever.
“Your article about coccidiomycosis reminded me of the great difference between diagnosing the illness in California and recognizing it in regions where the fungus doesn’t grow,” Sherm neatly penned on a fine piece of stationery. “At Hopkins, a patient I helped care for was the first person on the Osler Service ever to be diagnosed with cocci. After she spent a bad year in a TB sanitarium for a cavity in the right upper lobe, severe hemoptysis led to her transfer to Hopkins. She had never been out of the Maryland-Virginia region except once, to visit her cousin in El Paso, Texas [another cocci-endemic locale] for less than 24 hours. Several years later, the New England Journal [of Medicine] published a topper: A patient who had never left Massachusetts was, after long travail, found to have cocci. He was an avid streamtrout fisherman and used horsehair lures made in California.” (In this case, the horsehairs themselves carried the fungal spores.)
Sadly, Sherm’s years of face-to-face meetings with patients ended in 2006 after he fell while crossing his lawn to deliver some errant mail to a neighbor and suffered multiple injuries. There was, however, one silver lining for me: The many convalescent hours during which we co-wrote a treatise on lead that later was published in the medical journal The Pharos. In it, we spanned medical and industrial history, groundbreaking biochemical research and global policy. But, once again, as reflected Sherm’s medical credo, our piece began with the story of a single, unforgettable character with cryptic symptoms:
Some years ago, at a teaching conference in Long Beach, California, Dr. Mellinkoff discussed the case of a middle-aged Cambodian man who presented to the emergency room with severe episodic abdominal pain. Anyone could tell he was in agony from his facial expression and constant shifting motion. However, his physical examination showed no evidence of peritoneal irritation or bowel obstruction, nor did his radiographs or blood tests suggest any gastric, duodenal, pancreatic or biliary disorder. Even a porphyria test proved negative.
Then, just as mysteriously as it had begun, the man’s pain resolved, and he left the hospital, only to return weeks later in the same distressed state. This time, however, some of his red cells contained subtle blue inclusions. A bell rang, and a blood specimen was sent for a lead level. When it returned unequivocally high, discussions through a translator finally solved the mystery. Before arriving in the United States, while he was still living in a refugee camp, the patient had been charged with procuring alcohol for use in religious ceremonies. Being an enterprising fellow, he built a still from a car radiator and produced what was needed. Periodically, he also drank the spirits.”
And thus another human riddle was solved and shared.
ANY ARTICLE THAT TOUCHES ON SHERMAN MELLINKOFF’S LOVE OF LITERATURE would be wanting if it did not mention Anton Chekhov, the Russian physician, author and playwright. Although never an academic luminary, even as a student, Chekhov excelled at listening to patients, and he understood how profoundly doctors impacted their lives. During his own far-too-brief life, Chekhov also was a noted humanitarian, caring for the poor and advancing public health until weeks before his death from tuberculosis at the age of 44. Like Chekhov, Sherm mirrored truth, heart and compassion and shared generously, both in word and deed. In my personal archive, a final revealing excerpt can be found in a note he mailed not long after my mother’s death. Did Sherm express similar thoughts to others over his long, expressive life? Of course he did. On the other hand, even now, reading his frank, empathetic message reminds me just how lucky I was to be his friend.
You mentioned that you were glad to have had June and me to hear your sad story. From our perspective, we felt honored that you trusted us to listen. No friendship is more fastened to trust than in the sharing of sorrow. Perhaps you remember a short story by Anton Chekhov in which the driver of a horse-drawn cab tries in vain to recount the loss of his wife and son and ends up telling his story to his horse! June joins me in sending our love.
Dr. Claire Panosian Dunavan is a UCLA infectious diseases specialist and a medical writer. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Discover magazine and Scientific American, among others.
“The Lead Files: A Chronicle of Ignorance, Avarice, and Progress,” The Pharos, Autumn 2007