Kenneth L Abbott, MD, FACP  |  9/19/2022

Mary Woodard Lasker, “The Fairy Godmother of Medical Research”

The effort to combat cancer occurs on many fronts: the cancer patient’s home, the medical clinic, the operating room, the infusion center, the radiation suite, and the various diagnostic departments. These constitute the public “face” of cancer care. Less immediately apparent are the research laboratories and clinics where oncology investigators delve deep into the biology of cancer, seeking to reveal the secrets of the disease, probing for vital weaknesses, using the knowledge gained to develop tools and weapons to aid the fight. It is an expensive prospect, in time, in effort, and in resources. Throughout the history of the “war on cancer,” the ability to carry on the fight has depended on persons with vision and passion, and no little access to funding, or the ability to persuade others in positions of power and wealth—and even the members of the general public—to join the common cause. Such a passionate visionary, a dynamo of persuasion and influence, was Mary Woodward Lasker (1900-1994).

Mary Lasker, even from childhood, knew the devastation serious illness can wreak upon human lives. Early in life she had a memorable encounter in the home of a woman who had survived drastic surgery to treat breast cancer. She never forgot the effect this had on the woman’s family, including several small children. Both her parents died rather young. After a successful career as a businesswoman and through her marriage alliance with a man whose genius in advertising had brought him great material prosperity and access to the corridors of American power, Mrs. Lasker turned her considerable talents to achieving real progress in medicine. The early decades of the century had seen some gains, especially in infectious diseases with the advent of antibiotics and progress in creating effective vaccines, but satisfying answers to devastating diseases such as cancer and cerebrovascular disease proved elusive. Mrs. Lasker had learned from her husband’s business experience and success that large sums of money can persuade Americans to purchase heavily advertised consumer goods. She reasoned a similar exuberant financial effort could persuade many to finance medical research.

In the middle years of the Second World War, Mrs. Lasker approached the Manhattan offices of the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) to learn what it was accomplishing and was horrified to learn the organization was little more than a means for socializing among a few physicians and scientists. She then embarked upon what we now call a media blitz, strategically engaging the popular reach of The Reader’s Digest to educate the public about cancer and efforts to combat it. From this, she reaped donations amounting to several hundreds of thousands of dollars, which she turned right around into lobbying efforts and further ways of persuading wealthy donors to contribute. In 1945, she more or less commandeered the ASCC, replacing and enhancing the organization’s leadership, transforming it into the American Cancer Society, which became a far more effective organ for cancer education and fundraising.

By partnering with an esteemed clinical cancer researcher at Harvard University, Sidney Farber, Mrs. Lasker was able to extend her reach into the halls of the federal government. The pair commenced a two-decade effort to persuade members of Congress and several presidents to commit to what became known as the “war on cancer,” or (in the era of NASA’s Apollo space missions) the “cancer moonshot.” This eventuated in the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971.

Mary Lasker proved to be a woman ahead of her time. Cancer research and treatment in the 1960s and 1970s were unable to produce the immediate gains she sought, but her efforts laid important groundwork. Succeeding generations have harvested from what she sowed.
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