“Everything that has happened to me was part of a sequence of fortuitous events,” Mehlman said.
When Mehlman graduated from law school at Yale University, he headed to Washington, D.C., to practice. He took on some high-profile cases as well as the lesser-desired ones: Mehlman got his first look at the then-fledgling world of health law when his boss threw a new case his way.
After nine years, his heart no longer was in the field, so he looked to academia. At the time (1984), Case Western Reserve University School of Law was one of just two places in the country to specialize in health law, so Mehlman connected with the dean. The two were out to dinner in D.C. for an interview when one of Mehlman’s clients approached: the former National Security Agency adviser to President Ronald Reagan. The dean, a Reagan supporter, Mehlman said, was floored by Mehlman’s prominent connection. “His jaw just dropped,” Mehlman said, “and that was that.”
Shortly after, Mehlman came to Case Western Reserve to teach torts, health law and environmental law—the latter two of which he wasn’t entirely familiar. Realizing how broad the topic of health law was and how much he still had to learn, he discarded two topics from his studies: mental health and genetics.
When the human genome project started in 1990, however, the federal government provided funding for research into genetics’ ethical and legal ramifications. “So I said, ‘Well, it’s time to learn genetics,’” Mehlman remembered. “My science background consists of a high school biology class, so what I had to know, I had to teach myself.”
His studying paid off: Mehlman nabbed one of the very first grants from the National Institutes of Health to study ethical and legal issues pertaining to genetics, and he’s been funded by the NIH ever since. Today, as the director of the Law-Medicine Center, the Arthur E. Petersilge Professor of Law and a professor of bioethics at the School of Medicine, Mehlman is one of the leading experts on genetic enhancement, and just last year he earned the first NIH grant to study the use of genetic science by the military.
“Everything has been absolutely serendipitous,” Mehlman said. “I always tell my students not to be surprised if something comes up that seems oblique to their interests—it could be a major opportunity.”
In fact, one of Mehlman’s greatest interests beyond academia started as an unexpected opportunity. When he went away to boarding school at age 12, Mehlman was not athletic. “I was the last kid picked for the baseball team, and even then, it was only if they had to pick me,” he said. But stuck in the mountains of Western Massachusetts, Mehlman had few other options than to take up the region’s sport of choice: skiing. By his senior year, Mehlman was racing alongside the team captain, the famed actor and director Christopher Guest. He’s skied ever since, and even got his two children devoted to the sport. Now, every Wednesday night, Mehlman volunteers as a ski patrolman at nearby Alpine Valley, providing assistance to individuals in need.
What more is there to know about Mehlman? Read on and find out.
1. What was the first album you ever purchased, and what was the medium (record, cassette, CD, etc.)?
It was definitely vinyl, although I didn’t have a turntable for years. It probably would have been Jefferson Airplane’s album Surrealistic Pillow.
2. What do you think should have won “Best Picture” at the Oscars?
Life of Pi. I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie, but the combination of the visual splendor and the allegory of the story made for a great movie.
3. What moment at Case Western Reserve stands out as most memorable (so far)?
Certainly one is seeing Barbara Snyder the first time when she was back on campus, but this time as president of the university. She was a former colleague of mine at the law school (editor’s note: she served on the faculty from 1983 to 1988), so to see her taking the reins was pretty memorable.
4. What is one thing people would be surprised to learn about you?
Given my studies, it would probably be that I have no science background. Pretty much all of the science I know I’ve had to teach myself. I didn’t have any formal training.
5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
That would have to be my research collaborations with people all around the university. I’ve worked with a number of departments across campus, including social work, medicine, political science, philosophy, history—the list goes on.