Lives of the fellows

David Mendel

b.4 March 1922 d.10 March 2007
MB BS Lond(1948) MRCS LRCP(1948) MRCP(1952) FRCP(1973)

David Mendel was a cardiologist at St Thomas’ Hospital, London. He was born into a Jewish family in East London, the son of Tobias and Esther Mendel. His grandparents had come from a small town in Eastern Europe and in his early days he was an enthusiastic Zionist. He later lost his enthusiasm, but retained a great interest in Jewish history.

He attended Whittingehame College in Brighton, but he did not excel and his self-confidence was undermined when his younger brother was moved up into the same class. He and his parents had doubts about his suitability for higher education and, on leaving school, he joined his father’s firm of hat makers. He hated this and, when the war came, he joined the Army with a sense of relief. He served in the ranks of the Royal Corps of Signals until 1942, at which time he was discharged because he had seriously damaged his knee in a motor cycle accident (he later admitted that he had been going too fast). He could not face a life in business and applied to St Bartholomew’s Hospital where, to his delight and surprise, he was accepted. The medical school was evacuated to Cambridge, where he made the most of the opportunities available, attending many lectures on non-medical matters and discovering theatre, art and books.

He qualified in 1948 and his first post was as a houseman at the London Hospital. While there, he developed tuberculosis and spent six months in bed. He then became a ship’s surgeon on a boat plying between London and South America. After a number of appointments in London, he joined the department of medicine in Birmingham, becoming an expert in the field of pulmonary physiology. This proficiency served him in good stead when he applied for the post of registrar at the National Heart Hospital, to which he was appointed in 1953. His expertise in respiratory matters impressed the formidable Paul Wood [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.456] who then dominated the cardiology scene in Britain. In 1960, he joined the department of Edward Peter Sharpey-Schafer [Munk’s Roll, Vol.V, p.372] at St Thomas’ Hospital as a senior lecturer. David was appointed as a consultant in 1964.

He practised as a clinical cardiologist, as well as undertaking research. He was an authority on cardiac catheterisation and his lucid book - A practice of cardiac catheterization (Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1968) - was, for some years, considered by many to be the best book on this subject. Catheterisation is worrying for patients and he sought to calm their nerves by singing (not very tunefully) to show how relaxed he was. Whether this was reassuring is not known but, certainly, when he asked one patient to undergo the procedure for a second time, he agreed provided the doctor did not sing.

He was an outstanding teacher of medical students. His love of the subject and his wit were exceptional. On ward rounds, he would both entertain and interrogate his students. This was highly motivating, at least to those who were receptive and interested, a number of whom were inspired to continue and have become leaders in the field of cardiology.

Although a devoted scientist, he was very concerned about the arrogance and lack of respect for patients characteristic of some of his colleagues. He therefore wrote Proper doctoring (Berlin/New York, Springer Verlag, 1984) to teach medical students how to be ‘proper doctors’. His informal and easy style of writing did not disguise the wisdom and humanity of the content.

Never confined within conventional boundaries, while still a cardiologist he became interested in auditory physiology because he had become aware of the effects of cardiac drugs on the ear. As a result he spent a sabbatical year in Oxford, and wrote a number of original papers. On returning to St Thomas’, he continued his research on this topic, until his retirement in 1986.

Besides his medical activities, he found time to sail and windsurf, to make a great deal of his own furniture, to raise two much-loved daughters, and to practice silversmithing. At the age of 52 he took up the flute which he continued to play until he was 80.

He and his wife bought a ruined cottage in Kent and this became a central element in his life. He built an extension unaided, and installed central heating and electricity. He grew to love the place and, when he retired, he lived there permanently. At that time, he also studied at the University of Kent, from which he obtained a degree in Italian. He spent much of each year in Italy and spoke the language fluently. He also wrote and broadcast frequently on Italian matters.

A great admirer of Primo Levi’s writing, he was asked to prepare an obituary on the author while he was still alive. He pointed out that he did not know Levi, but decided he would ring him and they met at Levi’s home in Turin. The two became friends, and Levi enjoyed reading Mendel’s book on proper doctoring. Levi would ring David, particularly when he was depressed. Having got to know Levi well, David could not believe that a man who had survived so much could, as was widely thought, commit suicide.

David is survived by his wife, Meg, whom he married in 1960, and their daughters Alexandra and Philippa.

Desmond Julian

[The Independent 20 March 2007; The Times 18 April 2007; Brit.med.J.,2007,334,1228]

(Volume XII, page web)

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