Health activist and philanthropist Mary Lasker forever changed the course of medical research and human health, a never-before-told story featured in the new Mayo Clinic Press biography “Crusade to Heal America.” Learn more about this groundbreaking woman in a Q&A with author Judith L. Pearson.
Q: Could you give us a little background on Mary Lasker?
A: Mary Lasker was born in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 50 miles from Milwaukee. Her father, Frank, was a wealthy banker. Her mother, Sara, was a very civic-minded woman who arrived in America from Ireland at the age of 18. She became one of the most successful businesswomen in Chicago, which was without a doubt where Mary’s business drive came from.
Sara insisted that her two daughters be educated. Mary spent a year at University of Wisconsin, and then transferred to Radcliffe, majoring in art. Once she graduated in 1923, she declared New York City was the place to be. And this small-town Midwestern girl never looked back.
Q: What was Mary Lasker’s crusade — and what fueled it?
A: Later in her life, Mary Lasker would say, “I am opposed to cancer and heart attacks the way I am opposed to sin.” But that had always been her modus operandi. She had been interested in mental health and birth control at a time when those issues weren’t discussed. She volunteered for organizations that were involved with these matters. When she married the successful “father of modern advertising,” Albert Lasker, she suddenly had means and access. The Laskers learned that 40% of World War II enlistees were rejected because of health issues. And then they discovered practically no research was being done in the major causes of death in America, particularly in the field of cancer.
Q: What was the Laskers’ first steps to attack those facts?
A: They launched the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation in December 1942 and began making prizes to researchers. The first ones were just $1,000. Now, 81 years later, the awards are still going strong, but at the $250,000 level. Called “American Nobels,” 95 of the Lasker awardees have gone on to become Nobel laureates.
In 1944, the Laskers turned their attention to the American Society for the Control of Cancer, a staid organization made up primarily of doctors. Albert used his business acumen and renamed it the American Cancer Society. They reimagined its entire structure, doubling and then quintupling its annual fundraising. They cleverly brought lay people onto the board and brought cancer out of the shadows. Albert engineered a skit at the end of the popular “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio show where the two discussed a friend’s potential cancer diagnosis. It was the first time the word “cancer” had ever been spoken on the radio. Because there were such limited treatments, cancer was pretty much a death sentence. No one wanted to even think of it, let alone hear about it.
Q: Were those moves enough to move the needle in medical research?
A: Not even close. Albert told Mary even his money couldn’t boost research; but he knew where to find lots of it. He had been on the shipping board under President Harding. He knew about the government’s ability to move money around. At this time, the federal government was putting next to nothing into the National Institute of Health (it was singular then). Albert taught Mary how to fund-raise and friendraise —make friends with people in high places. Suddenly she found herself a full-time volunteer citizen lobbyist.
Mary pounded the halls of Congress, visiting politicians and urging them to increase research funding. The amounts she asked for — and got — were unheard of at that time. She lobbied to create new institutes at NIH, too, insisting there needed to be disease-specific entities — cancer, heart disease, mental illness and more. Because of Mary Lasker, NIH was plural, and the largest, most important medical research facility in the world.
Q: Mary Lasker had other passions besides medical research. Can you tell us about them?
A: Her first career out of college was at New York art galleries. In fact, she facilitated the very first Marc Chagall exhibit in the U.S. She did a little art collecting, but once married to Albert the collecting began in earnest. She taught him to appreciate art as well. Impressionism was her favorite. They came to know Picasso, Degas and Matisse personally, eventually amassing one of the largest art collections ever in the U.S.
With millions of dollars hanging on her walls, the artwork came in handy, too. On a number of occasions Mary sold pieces to fund the Lasker Foundation or a pet research project.
And then there were the flowers. Sara missed the flowers of Ireland. She was responsible for the creation of three city parks in Watertown and nurtured Mary’s love for flowers. Tulips down Park Avenue, cherry trees at the U.N., daffodils throughout D.C.: These are still blooming today, and all because of Mary. Lady Bird Johnson became a dear friend; it was Mary who encouraged the first lady’s beautification of America project.
Q: Speaking of Lady Bird, Mary Lasker had an impressive address book, didn’t she?
A: She did! She took Albert’s advice to heart. She knew the Roosevelts, nearly the entire Kennedy family and was very close with the Johnsons. She ate and slept in the White House often. She befriended scads of senators and congressmen, finding politicians with an interest in medical research, and sometimes inspiring it. After all, no one is immune to diseases.
Q: Albert was 20 years older than Mary. Were they happy?
A: They were like teenagers in love. Everyone close to Albert said that Mary was the best thing to happen to him after his first wife died. They said he seemed to get younger as he got older. After all the work they did to increase medical research — Mary believed her entire life that the cure for cancer was just around the corner — Albert died of colon cancer in 1952 (he was 72). It was heart-breaking for her, but it also gave her the impetus to work even harder.
Q: Would it be fair to say that Mary Lasker came up with the original “moonshot” for cancer?
A: Absolutely she did. She said those very words to President Johnson. There were two connections. First, the U.S. was putting so much money into the space program, she told everyone that if the same amount was spent on medical research, cancer and heart disease could be cured. Second, by this time she felt that the National Cancer Institute (within the NIH) wasn’t working effectively enough or hard enough. She insisted that a NASA-like organization without the existing bureaucracy would achieve the goal much more quickly.
Q: Did she work alone on these projects?
A: She did have gal pals in the trenches with her. First, Florence Mahoney, the wife of a friend of Albert’s, was her compatriot. It was Anna Rosenberg Hoffman, however, who became not only a friend, but someone who gave Mary great access. Anna was an Assistant Secretary of Defense under Franklin Roosevelt and an advisor to him and the presidents who followed.
Later, Mary took Deeda Blair under her wing. They were fast friends and both passionate about medical research. They hosted dinner parties with a tried-and-true seating chart formula. At every table would be a politician, a journalist, a scientist and a celebrity. The politician wanted to know the celebrity. The celebrity wanted positive press from the journalist. The scientist wanted money appropriated by the politician. And the journalist wanted scoops from all of them.
Mary insisted that she was just a “catalytic agent,” working on everything behind the scenes. But she got the job done and more money for NIH every year.
Q: What was Mary Lasker’s greatest accomplishment?
A: Without a doubt it was what became known as the War on Cancer. Mary had kept the pedal to the metal on a cure for the disease, but research just wasn’t moving fast enough. In 1970, she persuaded a Texas senator to introduce a bill called the “Conquest of Cancer,” which called for a panel to assess the situation. Soon after, she got her friend Senator Ted Kennedy on board in 1971.
Kennedy’s headlines about a new cancer push greatly concerned then-President Nixon. He was paranoid about Kennedy being on the presidential ballot in 1972 and he refused to lose to another Kennedy. He felt that he needed to outflank the senator, and cancer suddenly became the most important thing to Nixon. The political intrigue that unfolded over the next 10 months was unbelievable and greatly deserved to be brought to light.
At this point, I think it’s important to add that Mary certainly wasn’t doing all of this for the money or the fame. She had plenty of both. Amazingly, there were many who accused her of it, however. They came up with all kinds of unkind monikers for her crusaders: Mary’s Little Lambs, the health syndicate, the cancer mafia.
But Mary was undeterred. On December 23, 1971, everyone won. A jubilant Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act, awarding the sum of $1.6 billion ($11.7 billion today) to be spent over the next five years to conquer cancer. Mary succeeded in her quest to amply fund the National Cancer Institute, which was revamped to cut down on bureaucracy as well. And cancer survivors have reaped the rewards of accelerated research for over 50 years.
Q: What would Mary Lasker’s mission be today?
A: Mary’s friend and cancer researcher Dr. Jordan Gutterman told me he thinks mental health research needs a Mary Lasker. I agree with him. In the late 1930s, Mary became interested in what was called the mental hygiene movement, an effort to keep minds healthy exactly as we do our bodies. And the first institute she succeeded in adding to the NIH was the Institute of Mental Health.
As cancer was, mental illness is not just one disease but a vast spectrum of which we have limited understanding. And it lives in the closet, in the same way cancer did.
Q: How did you become interested in Mary Lasker’s story?
A: This question always makes me smile with every book. And my answer is always the same. My biography subjects always find me! My previous book, “From Shadows to Life,” is a group biography of the cancer survivorship movement. It begins with the National Cancer Act, so I had done a little research on Mary. I now realize that book is actually the sequel to this one!
Q: What do you hope this book will accomplish?
A: I think it’s important for readers to understand that the magnificent medical marvels we have were hard won because of a woman no one knows. Mary Lasker lived out my favorite quote from the wonderful cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Crusade to Heal America
The never-before-told story of the woman who moved mountains for medical research and human health.Shop Now