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‘Empress of All Maladies:’ Mary Lasker

Among the mostly male figures in the saga of the fight to defeat cancer portrayed in the PBS documentary, Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies, which premiers in Washington, D.C. today, is Mary Woodard Lasker. Born in 1900, she was a woman ahead of her time

— a powerful businesswoman, art dealer and philanthropist who led a crusade to win passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971 and to dramatically increase funding for the National Institutes of Health.  As she often reminded Congress, “If you think research is expensive, try disease.”

{mosads}As noted by authors Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz in their book The Man Who Sold America, Lasker has been “widely credited for steering more public dollars into health-related research than any other individual in U.S. history.” She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1969, the Four Freedoms Award in 1987, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1989. She brought her inexorable commitment, political will and social finesse to the cause of ensuring sustained and substantial public funding for medical research. 

What motivated Mary? A sickly childhood? A visit to the death bed of the family laundress? Her personal secretary’s battle with breast cancer? Her husband Albert’s death from cancer at age 72? At every turn, Mary found it inexplicable that the budgets for chewing gum advertising were greater than for cancer research.

At a time when women were still largely relegated to the margins of medicine, business and philanthropy, Lasker had access to the halls of power and a remarkable ability to mobilize public support for funding medical research.  She was a masterful networker – a “matchmaker between science and society.” She leveraged her networks in the media, Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Capitol Hill and the citadels of academia to build partnerships that could move the needle in Congress and in the Oval Office.

In 1942, Mary and her husband Albert — a super-salesman, promoting such household mainstays as Wrigley’s, Pepsodent and Lucky Strike and immortalized in The Man Who Sold America — created the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. To enhance the Foundation’s mission of inspiring public support for medical research, they established the Lasker Awards, America’s most prestigious prizes in basic and clinical research — sometimes referred to as “America’s Nobels for medical science.”

After Albert’s death in 1952, Mary continued her work to ensure funding for the battle against cancer. She recruited top-flight medical researchers and organized them to come to Washington to explain both the science and the personal impact of their research for the American people.

She called upon luminaries such as Elizabeth Taylor and Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers) to endorse the war against cancer. On April 20, 1971, at Mary’s request, Ann Landers used her nationally syndicated column to motivate 500,000 readers to send letters to Congress. This grassroots mobilization was credited in aiding passage of the National Cancer Act, signed into law by Richard Nixon in 1971.

An avid supporter of emerging artists such as Pablo Picasso and Leonard Foujita, Mary sold several of the Foujita works in her collection to support research on breast cancer therapies that she hoped would benefit women with the disease such as her secretary, Jane McDonough.

Mary Lasker was ahead of her time — an early female warrior in the fight against cancer and disease. Her legacy is a prize that promotes and incentivizes excellence in biomedical research, and for that we salute her. But more than that, we honor her for how she led by example – demonstrating the power of citizen action to demand that medical research be a national priority and serving as a role model for future women scientists and activists.

Pomeroy, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, dedicated to improving health by accelerating support for medical research.

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