Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn, The People’s Doctor

Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn, The People’s Doctor

Categories: Breastfeeding Today, Previous Issues

TERESA PITMAN

Originally published July 2016 and republished with the express permission of the author.

My mother, like many in her generation, believed that physicians were all-knowing and always right. You wouldn’t question what a doctor told you!

I don’t feel the same way, and neither do most of my contemporaries. What changed our perspective? One factor that was important to me: the work of a doctor who pulled back the curtain to reveal the realities of the medical profession. His name was Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, an American pediatrician who published five books and wrote a long-running newspaper column called “The People’s Doctor.” He also kept a close connection with La Leche League International throughout his life and was a member of its Medical Advisory Board. At an LLL Convention he memorably said, “I have a vision of La Leche League becoming one of the most important social action organizations in this country.” When he published a newsletter for several years, he invited Marian Tompson, one of the seven Founders and then President of La Leche League, to write a regular column.

LLL Founder Marian Tompson said:

I met Dr. Mendelsohn in the early 1960s at a Maternal and Child Health conference. He gave a talk on hospitalized children in which, as a pediatrician, he encouraged parents to never leave their children alone in the hospital and to stand up for their right to be there with them. This was music to my ears so when he finished speaking, I introduced myself and asked if La Leche League could make copies of his talk available to others. I’m not sure if he actually knew what La Leche League was at the time but he immediately agreed. Dr. Herbert Ratner [who made a significant contribution to the work of LLL and delivered a memorable keynote address at its first convention on the crucial role mothers play in the destiny of the world] invited Dr. Mendelsohn to be part of our fledgling group of Medical Advisors. Dr. Mendelsohn was a speaker at our very first International Convention in 1964 and became a much appreciated part of our LLL history!

It was Dr. Mendelsohn’s book, Confessions of a Medical Heretic that captured people’s attention by comparing medicine to religion. Many of the things doctors did or recommended, Mendelsohn said, were not based on evidence or research, but were done because of traditional practices and a desire to maintain the medical hierarchy. In that medical “religion,” he was a heretic—he questioned many of the unquestioned rules.

The next, Mal(e) Practice: How Doctors Manipulate Women, pointed out that most of the doctors who looked after women—obstetricians and gynecologists—were (at that time) men. Among other things, Dr. Mendelsohn believed that surgeries such as hysterectomies were done far too often. He was rather ahead of his time and today many doctors would agree with him.

And in 1987, the book How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor became popular among many breastfeeding families because of its unabashed enthusiasm for breastfeeding at a time when many doctors were still quick to recommend formula. Dr. Mendelsohn believed, as LLL does, that parents know their children best and should be strongly supported in their desire to breastfeed.

Sadly, Dr. Mendelsohn passed away a year later.

His daughter, Ruth Lockshin, was a La Leche League Leader in Toronto and a friend of mine. She, her mother, and her sister wanted to share some of Dr. Mendelsohn’s insights and ideas with families today. They have created The People’s Doctor where you can find copies of his newspaper columns, organized by topic, and other helpful information.

His tremendous contribution to medicine, both for those who practice it and those who turn to the medical profession for help and advice, is shown in this quotation from Dr. Robert Minkus who studied under Dr. Mendelsohn when he was teaching at the University of Illinois:

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 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.

Teresa Pitman has been a La Leche League Leader for 40 years. She is one of the co-authors of the LLLI books The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and Sweet Sleep and is the author of 16 other books with a 17th book coming out in January 2019 (on starting solids!). She is the mother of four grown children and the grandmother of ten. 

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