Albert Einstein must be giving Dr. Sherman M. Mellinkoff a lot of comfort lately.
Over the last few weeks Mellinkoff, who is retiring after 24 years as the dean of the UCLA Medical School, has been subjected to more praise than a home-run hitter in the last inning of the seventh game of the World Series.
He's been called "good," "wise" and "courageous," to list a few of the milder adjectives. He's been compared with Thomas Jefferson. He's been toasted by hundreds, literally, at a banquet in his honor. A newly endowed chair at the medical school, funded with $1 million, will be named for him.
No Longer Low Profile
All in all, it's been the kind of attention usually reserved for politicians, magnates and movie stars, not low-profile academic doctors with a penchant for wry humor, writing poetry and citing quotations dredged from the classics, the not-so-classic and the sports pages to make a point.
In brief, those are some of the reasons why the words of the great physicist on Mellinkoff's office wall probably are getting a lot of eyeballing: "The only way to escape the personal corruption of praise is to go on working."
Whatever else he may be--and he is many things to many people--it's abundantly clear that he would rather not endure the rounds of public affection and admiration that are punctuating the time to his exit July 1. He has fired back with quotes from baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan and self-deprecating jokes--one of them being that when brain transplants become practical, "deans' brains will be in highest demand because they've never been used." And at the end of the banquet in his honor the other night, Mellinkoff dryly remarked that friends and colleagues had said "so many kind and inaccurate things that I have become embarrassed."
Survived and Prospered
However, Mellinkoff, 66, is well-schooled in surviving both the pressures of the moment and the pressures of decades. He came to the medical school in 1953, when it was little more than a slapdash assembly of temporary buildings. He was named dean in 1962 and has lasted and prospered over nearly a quarter-century, longer than any other currently serving medical school dean. Most other medical school deans seek other employment after only about three years--a figure that speaks volumes about the nature of such jobs.
During those record-setting years he has worked quietly out of his Spartan, seldom-painted office-conference room, a refuge hidden away from the hurly-burly of the UCLA Medical Center. In that time the medical school grew from a modest institution with a budget of less than $15 million when he took over, to one with a budget of more than $180 million, as well as about 650 students--plus 1,500 interns, residents and fellows, about 1,200 full-time faculty members and 3,085 clinical faculty on the UCLA campus and at seven other hospitals. Mellinkoff is only the second dean of the school, which has graduated 3,000 students since the first class of 28 received its diplomas in 1955.
Perhaps more importantly, the school has acquired an international reputation for both medical education and research. Mellinkoff is proud to note that the school has renal, bone marrow, heart and liver transplant programs. Seven faculty members have been elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Recently, UCLA bone marrow transplant experts were prominent among physicians who went to the Soviet Union to aid victims of the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster.
Not unexpectedly, Mellinkoff, who first thought it was an absolutely crazy idea to make him a dean, disavows any connection between himself and the school's renown. "I take no credit for any scientific discoveries here," he said in an interview. "I've taken vicarious joy in the many great achievements of the faculty."
However, Mellinkoff, whose specialty is gastroenterology, has worked to stay current with developments and can recite a long list of achievements--ranging from pinpointing brain arousal centers to tissue typing to calcium's role in physiology--that have put the medical school on the map.
Nearly everyone who knows Mellinkoff seems to be impressed with his achievements. At the banquet, longtime friend and colleague Dr. William P. Longmire noted that when he and Mellinkoff disagreed over medical and administrative matters, Mellinkoff was usually right. Dr. Kenneth I. Shine, the heart researcher and cardiologist who will replace Mellinkoff as dean, told the audience Mellinkoff is "a remarkable scholar" and the "wizard" of the medical school.
A Lover of Literature