Reflections on Medicine

Peter Mendelis (C’62, M’66, R’70)

I have prostate cancer. I should be doing far worse than I actually am. It’s a bit of puzzle, but I’ll take it. My mind hasn’t gone yet.

One dime

I grew up in New York City and went to the neighborhood Catholic school. In those days, it was perfectly permissible for the sisters to rap your knuckles with rulers if you did something they didn’t like. That said, it was a good education. My knuckles are still sore, though.

After grammar school, I went to Fordham Prep, a Jesuit school on the university’s campus. It was a liberal education, including four years of Latin. For lunch, we went off campus to White Castle. Ten cents a burger—can’t beat that.

On graduation night, they announced that I was awarded a four-year Ignatian Scholarship. I was delighted because it meant I could afford Georgetown.

My favorite uncle, Dr. Chris Mendelis, had gone to Georgetown. He was someone to emulate and didn’t hesitate to give me advice. He said going to another school would be like driving a Volkswagen, but Georgetown was a Cadillac.

red Cadillac

When visiting my uncle’s office, I vividly remember his fluoroscope— an x-ray machine that was on all the time. My exposure to it (probably too many rads, when I think back) was to hold my hand up behind the screen to see the bones. Fascinating.

In those days, the physician could dispense medicine to patients. During flu season, Uncle Chris would line up his five children and me and, with the same syringe, give us inoculations against the flu.

Why medicine? As a child, I knew I wanted to do work that was helpful to people. When it came to choosing a career, I couldn’t think of anything more valuable than practicing medicine.

Med-Dent building

In 1963, my class was introduced to our second-year physiology professor, Estelle Ramey. She was an eloquent, wonderful teacher—and a real knock-out. Not only was she a physician, she was a physiologist, an endocrinologist and, I later learned, a feminist at the forefront of women’s lib.

I had a straight medical internship at Downstate in Brooklyn— a pretty intense year because it was 36 hours on, 12 hours off.

When I went through school and residency, we were trained in therapy—to me, the most enjoyable part of psychiatry. Over the years, for economic reasons, the number of visits a patient could have became more limited. This chokes the whole process of psychotherapy.


The time allotted per patient diminished from 50 minutes down to 15. To use the limited time well, you need to cut to the chase. I’m known for being direct with my patients.

For the past 20 years, I ran my own mental health center in the underserved community of Waldorf, Maryland. On busy days, I’d see 28 patients.

It’s important for new physicians to do the best they can to stay abreast of current knowledge in the field. When I was starting medical school, there were only a handful of drugs to treat somebody who was psychotic. For today’s psychiatrist, it’s critical to keep up with developments in psychopharmacology.

building in Mongolia

Over the last 10-12 years, I’ve traveled the world. I recommend Mongolia. Wide open spaces, Buddhist culture, interesting people, and the traveling itself is uncomplicated. Once your medical practice becomes established, balancing work and time off becomes easier.

I practiced medicine for 50 years. I just retired in December. Didn’t want to. I loved what I did. Work was always a pleasure for me.