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The Cutting Edge

A Humble Leader

 

To his peers on the national stage, he was the "Dean of Deans." His colleagues called him "insightful," "brilliant," a "man of irreproachable integrity" and "the ultimate team player." To most everyone who knew him well, he was simply "Sherm." Sherman M. Mellinkoff, MD, the second dean of the UCLA School of Medicine who, from 1962 to 1986, guided the fledgling institution to become an internationally recognized center for medical education and research, died on July 17, 2016, at the age of 96.

Modest and humble, Dr. Mellinkoff was nonetheless a visionary and extraordinary leader. He had an incredible eye for talent, unwavering support for faculty and a gift of persuasion. Under his guidance for nearly a quarter of a century - among the longest tenures of any medical school dean in the country - the school grew from 28 students to 650; its faculty quadrupled; its budget increased by $165 million; and multiple organ-transplantation programs, a comprehensive cancer center and one of the first federally funded facilities for positron emission tomography research were established. In 1979, the Sherman Mellinkoff Faculty Award was established; today it is considered the medical school's highest honor.

Dr. Mellinkoff is remembered not just for building one of the country's finest medical schools, but also for his warmth, generosity and self-effacing humor. When he retired, the Los Angeles Times noted that he once remarked that when brain transplants become practical, "deans' brains will be in highest demand because they've never been used."

Dr. Mellinkoff was not just a man of fscience; he was a man of great culture and had a deep love of literature. It was not unheard of for him to quote both the humorist James Thurber and Ecclesiastes in the same sentence. An avid fan of history and baseball, he also was known to pepper his speech with passages from Winston Churchill and pitcher Nolan Ryan. He once said that "by the time I was in high school, I was interested in literature, history and debating - everything except medicine."

That changed when he was a senior at Beverly Hills High School. Inspired by a biology class taught by a local physician, he enrolled as a pre-med student at Stanford, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his MD at Stanford, served for two years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and completed his residency at Johns Hopkins University and fellowship in gastroenterology at the University of Pennsylvania. He was recruited to UCLA in 1953 - just two years after the medical school opened. Nine years later, he was asked to assume the role of dean.

Alan Fogelman, MD '66 (FEL '73), chair of the UCLA Department of Medicine, was a student when he first met Dr. Mellinkoff in 1963. "Sherm served as the face of UCLA medicine and enabled us to become part of the community in a meaningful way," he says.

But Dr. Mellinkoff always insisted that the spotlight should be shone elsewhere. "As dean, I didn't want to push my dreams onto others," he told UCLA Medicine magazine in 2004. "I felt my job was to help make other people's dreams come true." As for his own success, "I've always been lucky," he said. "That's really all it was."

 





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