Mary Woodard Lasker, a prominent mid-20th century New York City philanthropist and health activist, had a simple warning: “If you think research is expensive, try disease!” These oft-used words defined Lasker’s rationale behind her lifelong initiative for greater research funding to fight cancer in the United States, culminating with passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971. Beginning in the 1940s, the charming but relentless Lasker defiantly moved beyond her roles as rich socialite and shrewd entrepreneur to become a pioneering leader in the male-dominated worlds of national policy-making and scientific research. Convinced that the transfer of science from the lab to the patient could speed the cure of cancer, Lasker presented the nation with the novel idea that a single deadly disease could be eradicated with sustained and substantial public funding for medical research. Aided by her husband’s wealth and advertising savvy, Lasker transformed nonprofit and governmental entities dedicated to the disease, created bold public-awareness messages, and forged valuable personal and professional relationships and political connections, in her “crusade” against cancer. Recognized in New York salons and Capitol Hill offices for her social manners and bouffant hairstyle as well as her results-driven bottom line drive for research dollars, Lasker led a groundswell of public and governmental support demanding that medical research be a national priority. With her unlikely and unusual leadership made all the more compelling because of her gender during this time in history, Mary Lasker became the catalyst for the adoption of the National Cancer Act and the nation’s declaration of the “War on Cancer.”
Lasker’s early brushes with her own illness and with the cancer of her family’s housekeeper profoundly heightened her later interest in medical research. Born Mary Woodard in 1900 in Watertown, Wisconsin, she endured chronic and painful ear infections, causing “deeply resentful” feelings for the lack of medical remedies during her childhood. “I screamed so much that I wonder how my mother and father lived with me,” she recounted later. Perhaps more significantly, Lasker witnessed cancer’s devastating effects when she was a young girl in a deathbed visit to her family housekeeper, Mrs. Belter, who was suffering from breast cancer. When the young Lasker saw the “miserable sight with her children crowding around her,” she later said, “I was absolutely infuriated, indignant, that this woman should suffer so and there should be no help for her.” Yet, she received no explanation for Mrs. Belter’s decline, because “cancer was a word that you simply couldn’t say out loud” in the early 1900s.
Her mother’s death in 1940 served as the tipping point in Lasker’s anger over inadequate medical treatments, which had been building for decades. “I am opposed to … cancer,” she said, “the way I am opposed to sin.” Lasker set out to rid the world of cancer with proselytizing fervor, realizing that “my major motivations… all went back to my violent reaction and hostility to illness for myself or for anybody else.” Such a conviction meant that other aspects of her life, while impressive and illustrious, became secondary, including her roles as glittering social maven, successful art dealer and collector, and savvy businesswoman. Her lack of a scientific or medical background was no deterrent: “Nobody would have me in their laboratory for five minutes,” she once said; “I couldn’t cut up a frog, and I certainly couldn’t perform surgery,” but she resolved to be “better at making it possible for other people.”
Her marriage in 1940 to Albert Lasker, considered the founder of modern advertising for his novel use of logos and slogans to distinguish brands, enabled her to transform her burgeoning cause into a full-blown mission for cancer research. Having amassed a fortune both from his national advertising campaigns for products such as Whirlpool washing machines and Sun-Maid raisins and from taking stock as partial payments from companies including Pepsodent and Kimberly-Clark, Lasker’s millionaire husband catapulted her to a new level of philanthropic and social influence, particularly in “her life-long interest in health.”
She soon convinced her husband that his resources and talent could make a great impact in health issues, especially cancer. “Without Albert’s support, know-how, and money, I couldn’t have done anything,” Lasker acknowledged later. In 1942, the Laskers founded the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which established a new vehicle for encouraging medical research through public education and advocacy. They also created The Lasker Prizes, prestigious annual awards for groundbreaking medical and scientific research.
Strengthened by her newfound prominence and platform, Lasker prepared to take on the unmentionable, dreaded disease that struck her childhood housekeeper. Even more alarming to her, in her opinion nothing in cancer research or treatment had improved some 40 years later. She was right: “Within the public domain and the medical community, … the 1930s and 1940s were still characterized by pessimism regarding cancer treatment.” Around this time, her cook developed cancer, and was sent to a hospital for incurables. Lasker’s cook and more than 150,000 others were dying each year of cancer in the United States, but the disease garnered scant public and media attention. Into the 1940s, “cancer was hidden away from public view.” People suffering from cancer remained loathe to acknowledge it; even her own cook only reluctantly revealed her diagnosis to Lasker.
Lasker began her mission in earnest with a quick survey of the cancer landscape. Her first stop was a visit to the voluntary organization founded in 1913 to raise public awareness and “reduce taboos” of cancer diagnoses in order to fight the disease. In April 1943, the well-dressed “socialite” practically stormed into the office of the American Society for the Control of Cancer, one of the nation’s leading disease-focused voluntary organizations. She confronted its director, Dr. Clarence Cook Little, and demanded to know the amount of money being spent on cancer research. “Nothing,” replied Little, who had never met Lasker and had no inkling that his answer would set off a firestorm of change. Rather than supporting research, the organization, made up of a relatively small group of physicians and scientists, primarily used its meager funds to educate the public and accumulate data on cancer. Alarmed at its limited size, purpose and ambition, Lasker left with the realization that the American Society wasn’t “going to eliminate cancer.” She angrily observed that “an advertising campaign about a toothpaste” attracted more money than the charity charged with fighting cancer.
Indeed, the proof was in its budget. The American Society had an annual budget of only $102,000 in 1943. Even its public counterpart didn’t fare much better; the federal government’s National Cancer Institute, which was part of the National Institutes of Health, had a $500,000 budget for the fiscal year ending in June 1945. By contrast, the March of Dimes effort to combat polio brought in $15 million for its cure, though the disease affected far fewer people than cancer. In doing additional reading on cancer research, Lasker found a pamphlet from the New York City Cancer Committee which stated that no single institution had more than $500,000 for research and that such a “vast sum” could allow “great progress.” “In business $500,000 wouldn’t even be a suitable sum to use for an advertising campaign for a toothpaste,” she recalled thinking at the time. “I was appalled that no single laboratory had this amount with which to try to conquer the number-two cause of death of the people of the United States.”
Lasker couldn’t permit this meager state of cancer-research funding to continue — and she had a plan to fix it. Under the tutelage of her husband on modern salesmanship, she plotted promoting the need for cancer research as if selling cigarettes or gum. To Lasker, an important initial step meant that cancer emerge from the shadows. Because the word “cancer” provoked such doom in the first half of the 1900s, including a likely death sentence for those afflicted, it was only whispered about in private. She wanted to make the disease a public health issue that resonated with Americans, many of whom either had cancer themselves or experienced a family member suffering from cancer. Lasker’s objective: get the battle against cancer covered by radio, the main outlet for news and information, and by mainstream publications in order to change the national dialogue — and perhaps the future trajectory of research funding.
Taking a page from her husband’s use of radio to grab the public’s attention with ad jingles, Lasker wanted to commission radio spots on the need for more research dollars to fight cancer. Her goal: grab listeners’ attention by highlighting the disease as the nation’s second leading cause of death. There was a major problem, however, because radio networks prohibited the use of the word “cancer” over their airwaves. At this time, cancer “was an unpleasant word and must not be mentioned,” Lasker said. “You could mention sex …. but cancer, you couldn’t even mention the word.” She leaned on her advertising-guru husband, who had purchased vast amounts of time on radio networks in his career, to persuade David Sarnoff, head of the Radio Corporation of America, that cancer’s mention over the airwaves was long overdue.
In 1944, Lasker seized an opportunity in a different medium when she ran into a friend, Lois Mattox Miller, the medical editor of the Reader’s Digest. She told her about the “sad facts” that the American Society for the Control of Cancer had no funds for research, even as “one out of eight would die of the disease.” Taken by Lasker’s compelling pitch, Miller wrote three small articles published in the widely-circulated magazine, which concluded with a line at the end asking for donations to be sent to the American Society for the Control of Cancer. More than $300,000 in contributions poured into the Society, which was far more than the organization’s previous annual budget.
Around the same time, Lasker used her social skills and hefty bank account to work her way onto the Society’s board of directors. She then prodded several friends either to solicit or contribute donations, raising more than $4 million for the American Society in 1945, of which she mandated that one-fourth be set aside specifically for cancer research. With that first appeal netting $960,000 solely for cancer research, a number which she easily recalled decades later, Lasker was elated: “For the first time in the history of mankind, there was a substantial single fund in the cancer field which was to be used for cancer research!”
Lasker continued to overhaul the American Society and assumed virtual control. She wanted to restructure the board on which she now sat, replacing more than half of the scientist-and-physician-dominated positions with action-oriented laypeople. For the new board chairman, Lasker recruited Emerson Foote, a successful advertiser and friend of Albert Lasker. Foote and Lasker acted swiftly to upend the stale, club-like group of doctors into a lobbying force by recruiting more high-powered and specialized professionals, including lawyers, movie producers, businessmen and pharmaceutical executives. They also changed the group’s name in 1945 to the more concise American Cancer Society. Little finally resigned when he “couldn’t get along with anybody” in the new crowd now in control, Lasker recounted.
Shortly after the American Cancer Society’s revamp, the new board, comprised of Lasker’s skillful friends and allies, immediately put to use its greater prominence and lobbying muscle. Together, Lasker and her group of activists became known as “Laskerites” in the media, a name they proudly accepted. She was “the center of this collective, its nucleating force, its queen bee.”
With the leading cancer charity now flush with cash and good will, Lasker turned her attention to the governmental institution charged with cancer research, the National Cancer Institute. Again, Albert Lasker provided wise counsel to his wife. Charitable giving could take her cancer drive only so far; what she needed to ascend to the next level was political action to unleash federal dollars. “You need a lot of money for the kind of progress you have in mind,” Albert Lasker told his wife, “You cannot do that without involving the federal government.” Despite being a supreme networker and social dynamo, Lasker was entering unchartered territory: “I had never had any contact with Washington at all, officially or unofficially,” she recalled.
“There are unlimited funds,” Albert Lasker told her, “I will show you how to get them.” One of her first lessons was to go straight to the congressional committees that provided money. On Capitol Hill, Lasker and her colleagues found immediate success. Newly emboldened by support from the American Cancer Society and the public, they sought and won from Congress greater funding for the National Cancer Institute. Its federal appropriations skyrocketed from $1.75 million in 1946 to more than $14 million in 1947.
The next year NCI’s director, John Heller, returned the favor to Lasker by introducing her to the idea of chemotherapy as a cancer treatment and to the famed doctor who had created it, Dr. Sidney Farber. The Harvard pathologist and cancer researcher had just discovered that treatment with anti-folic acid compounds resulted in permanent remission of acute leukemia in children, one of the first eradications of any cancer.
Lasker immediately recognized Farber’s value to the cause of cancer research. His discovery validated that scientific pursuit could yield the “magic bullet” against cancer, and thus augment the scientific legitimacy of her effort. Becoming regular pen pals, Lasker and Farber quickly found common ground on the poor state of research funding despite its huge potential to unlock treatments and possible cure. For example, in 1948, the nation’s hospitals supported only 100-150 beds for special cancer research, which Lasker called “completely inadequate.” Not surprisingly, the dearth of research spawned a multitude of theories on the origins of cancer from a “disease of civilization” to the product of germs, against which Farber railed in his lengthy and more knowledgeable letters to Lasker, which he called his “scientific treatises.”
Suddenly and ironically Lasker’s battle against cancer became even more personal. Her beloved husband and co-conspirator against the disease was diagnosed in 1951 with colon cancer, which had metastasized. As Lasker frantically wrote oncologists, including Farber, for last-ditch treatments, her husband slipped into a coma and died the following year. He left Lasker with not only his fortune, but also a new urgency to find effective treatments for cancer. After watching her husband’s painful decline and death, Lasker “didn’t want others to suffer the way he did. She redoubled her efforts.”
When Lasker emerged from her grief, cancer was no longer her cause, it was her enemy. She resumed her close alliance with Farber, and by the mid-1950s they became convinced that together they could successfully launch a coordinated national attack on cancer, which Farber began to reference as a “crusade.” Determined to discover new cancer treatments in the research laboratory, Lasker planned to use her social, political and media skills, while Farber would provide the scientific expertise and authority. Lasker and Farber created a “synergistic partnership that would stretch over decades,” becoming a key component in the march toward a national cancer-research agenda.
Lasker next intensified her focus on the National Cancer Institute, where she served on its National Advisory Cancer Council, a panel she had pushed to be established and to include laypeople. In this capacity, she wrangled key information out of the director of the National Institutes of Health, from the broader “goals and objectives of cancer research and their means for implementation” to more specific details such as “the program review of the clinical chemotherapy area.”
For several years, Lasker had been successfully lobbying to increase NCI’s budget, and was “credited with a considerable role in persuading Congress to increase appropriations” for NIH (of which it was part) from $2.5 million to more than $1 billion by the 1960s. The national budget for cancer, however, remained in the range of about $100-150 million, which didn’t keep pace with inflation. A de-facto slowdown in federal research dollars for cancer was anathema to Lasker and her allies. As she frequently asserted, “Without money, nothing gets done.” Lasker believed that the government’s commitment would be ineffective in “little pieces; rather it should be approached as an integrated whole with a substantial and continuous commitment of resources,” her step-grandson, Christopher Brody, later recalled. “She thought big.”
Thinking big to Lasker meant the time had come for action by Congress and the President in order to ensure federal financing of medical research, specifically in the fight against cancer. After years focusing primarily to benefit of the disease-focused charitable and governmental institutions, Lasker prepared to take her cause nationwide. With her growing stature, connections, and list of prominent supporters, Lasker essentially created the first-ever medical research lobby.
She started by going straight to the top, and in the 1960s that meant to Vice President (and former Senate Majority Leader), and later President, Lyndon Johnson. She had gotten to know the powerful Texas senator through his wife Lady Bird over their shared interest in the beautification of public spaces, particularly with flowers. Calling Lasker “a dauntless warrior,” Lady Bird Johnson recalled the cancer advocate as “warm and open-armed to me as well as to Lyndon … She wanted to educate Lyndon and use him in all her health [lobbying].”
With Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson as influential allies, Lasker gained entree to Washington’s elite, especially among Democrats. Using her social circles as a starting point, Lasker tactfully worked to insinuate herself and fellow Laskerites within political circles as well. “They got some of the most cogent, gently applied arguments for fighting killer diseases, as well as some of the most elegant dinners and interesting evenings,” Mrs. Johnson observed. Lasker quickly became a “regular on the Hill.” As an aide to President Johnson noted, Lasker and her associates “set a new fashion for lobbyists. The moving and shaking done by such womenfolk affects everybody including the most obdurate politician.”
Lasker’s single minded focus to obtain federal funding for medical research was revolutionary and therefore controversial. Because such research at the time was conducted by universities, nonprofit institutes and private companies, Lasker and her lobbying efforts attracted scrutiny. She and her allies were dubbed “Mary and her little lambs” by detractors. By the mid-to-late 1960s, critics charged that she was “ too covetous of power, too insistent on her pursuits, too confident of her own expertise in the minutiae of medicine.”
The 1968 publication of Cure for Cancer: A National Goal by Dr. Solomon Garb immediately caught Lasker’s attention. “It seemed to me to be a very lucid and intelligent appeal to make cancer a major effort, “ she said. Garb, a pharmacology professor at the University of Missouri, explained in his book that the nation needed to re-examine its cancer-research effort, because “less than two percent of the federal funds allocated for research are used for cancer research.” He proposed establishing a research program for cancer that was similar to the nation’s successful space program: “through a national commitment to make the cure… of cancer a national goal, in the same way that putting a man into orbit around the earth was made a national goal, and then achieved.”
Garb’s book contended that sufficient funding could essentially buy scientific ideas and talent, making a cure for cancer possible. He additionally argued that the agency charged with cancer research should follow NASA’s experience of reporting directly to the president, bypassing layers of bureaucracy. The book helped Lasker “crystallize her thinking” and gave her confidence to speed up her actions. Lasker distributed Garb’s book to the Laskerites, which “became their bible.” Lasker also invited Garb to dine with her in New York City, where “Garb convinced her that curing cancer was only a matter of money and political resolve.” Going forward, Garb’s book not only affirmed Lasker’s past actions, but also provided her a guiding light for her future direction.
As she sat glued to her television set on July 20, 1969, Lasker watched in awe as Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Inspired by the boldness of both the moon landing and thesis of Garb’s book, Lasker developed a new justification for her mission: the “moonshot” for cancer. The triumphant Apollo mission marked a turning point in Lasker’s campaign, because she incorporated one of America’s leading topics of the day into her own argument. Lasker reasoned that in regards to the space program, the United States had set a goal, used countless resources to achieve that goal, and was ultimately successful in a great scientific achievement. She insisted that a similar process be set up for increased cancer research and ultimately a cure for cancer. She even started to call her cause a “conquest of ‘inner space’ (as opposed to ‘outer space’), conceptually unifying the two projects.” Lasker’s embrace of the “moonshot” parallel enabled her to equate a cancer-research initiative with a source of American pride and unity, and became her template to popularize its appeal, even with respect to a dreaded disease.
Later that year, Lasker founded the Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer to symbolize “grassroots support” for cancer-research dollars. She named both her longtime doctor ally Farber and her newest ally, Garb, to be its first co-chairmen. Tapping into the public’s desire for “the promise of rapid cancer cures,” the Citizens Committee sought to generate a groundswell for support for curing cancer by 1976, America’s bicentennial. The new Citizens Committee members, who were orchestrated by Lasker, offered witnesses before congressional committees and generated statistics documenting the miniscule scale of federal expenditures on cancer research compared to defense spending.
With Richard Nixon now occupying the presidency instead of Johnson, Lasker’s loss of direct access to the White House forced her to work from the outside. Her answer was a groundbreaking and provocative full-page newspaper advertisement that called on the President to take personal responsibility for curing cancer. The ad first ran in the New York Times on December 9, 1969, as well as in other newspapers including the Washington Post. The full-page ad was intended by Lasker and her Citizens Committee allies as a full-scale offensive to influence American opinion. Importantly, the ad elevated the attack on the disease as an enemy to be defeated with the phrase: “War on Cancer.”
“Mr. Nixon: You can cure cancer” was the daring statement that began the advertisement. The large font and direct address to the President were designed instantly to capture a reader’s interest. In smaller font at the bottom of the page, an open letter to Nixon used precise language that put pressure on the country’s leader to prevent more Americans from dying of cancer. The ad’s fine print read: “If you fail us, Mr. President, this will happen: One in six Americans now alive, 34,000,000 people, will die of cancer unless new cures are found.” For shock value, the ad included a powerful visual of a mass of cancer cells, “sending a shower of metastatic fingerlings through the text.” Lasker privately delighted in the ad’s novel impact, which led lawmakers to remark “they’d never had ads before on cancer in their districts…and it caused quite a little commotion.” Ultimately, through the ad’s clever language and layout, Lasker gained invaluable new support, while simultaneously transferring much of the responsibility for increasing cancer research to President Nixon and Capitol Hill.
In addition to the advertisement’s public pressure on Nixon, Lasker also attempted to influence the president through his own Cabinet. In October 1969, she had lunch with Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Robert Finch to persuade him of the urgent need for a presidential commission on the conquest of cancer. She followed the lunch with a letter, which attached a “detailed memorandum” on how a presidential commission should spend “whatever the cost” to save an estimated 300,000 lives a year. The memorandum went so far as to predict that “this saving of lives will add to the gross national product and many times pay for the total expenditures.” Lasker suggested that the committee include esteemed citizens such as philanthropist Laurance S. Rockefeller and International Business Machines Company chief executive Thomas J. Watson, Jr.
Lasker pressed her case for the Commission on the Conquest of Cancer to another Cabinet member in the Nixon administration, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird. “I did have a chance to talk with the President about the possibility of his appointing a commission to explore the near-term conquest of cancer,” he wrote Lasker. “He seemed favorable to the suggestion.” The letter was dated just three weeks after the full-page advertisement directed at Nixon, which Lasker had a “a feeling that it couldn’t help but have been shown to Mr. Nixon, who is now thinking of appointing this commission.”
Whether before the administration, Congress, or the National Institutes of Health, Lasker was becoming a powerful — and recognizable — force. “With brown hair coiffed in a perfect bouffant, a mink coat slung carelessly over her chair, and perfectly applied makeup, Mary had the appearance of a lightweight socialite with too much time on her hands,” one cancer scientist recalled from a 1969 meeting attended by physicians and men in dark suits. The scientist “consequently learned that she was very much a heavyweight, despite her appearance, and, indeed more than a little scary.”
Lasker knew better than to rely solely on the executive branch of government on her goal of a new committee to oversee greater federal funding for cancer research. She needed congressional action, including a key lawmaker to take up her cause on Capitol Hill. She selected Texas Senator Ralph W. Yarborough, chairman of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, who had worked closely with Johnson on his liberal legislative agenda. Yarborough was “very disorganized, very harassed,” but Lasker came prepared to her initial meeting in 1969 with substance and sustenance. Accompanied by a scientist from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, Lasker presented the notion that a nationwide commission of citizens could build consensus for researching a cure for cancer. The Texas senator was interested. Then Lasker and the cancer scientist, Mathilde Krim, each pledged $5,000 for Yarborough’s upcoming senatorial election campaign.
Yarborough agreed to propose a Senate resolution to establish such a citizens committee, introducing “Senate Resolution 376 to establish a Panel of Consultants on the Conquest of Cancer” in March 1970, which was unanimously adopted by the Senate in April. Once the panel was established, Lasker quietly did her best to “hand-pick” members of the panel, many of whom she knew would either represent her point of view or use their Republican credentials with the current administration. In the “official” letter from Yarborough inviting Lasker to serve on the new Panel of Consultants, he wrote in cursive across the bottom of the page: “It was your genius, energy and will to help mankind which created the committee.”
The Lasker-led group of doctors, cancer activists and business leaders soon drafted a “blueprint” with its main purpose to create a new federal agency to coordinate and expand cancer research. Its report, released on December 10, 1970 from the “Yarborough Commission,” laid out details for a legislative plan to establish a new “independent government agency known as the National Cancer Authority” that “would replace the present fragmented governmental research agencies and create one strong agency to get the job done to find the cause and the cure of cancer.”
Following Yarborough’s public proposal, Lasker and other influential members of the Panel of Consultants mobilized to secure Nixon’s approval. While the Panel’s Republicans lobbied Nixon’s aides, Lasker and Panel chair Benno Schmidt Sr. approached Elmer Bobst, a millionaire pharmaceutical executive and Nixon’s close friend. They urged Bobst to encourage Nixon to include the cancer initiative in his upcoming State of the Union address.
The suggestion found favor with Nixon, perhaps as much for political as for scientific reasons. Nixon had observed how Senator Ted Kennedy was gaining increased visibility and good will by becoming the “champion of the bill” for cancer legislation after Yarborough lost his Senate seat. Worried about the possibility of Kennedy becoming the Democratic presidential nominee against him in his 1972 reelection bid, Nixon wanted to deprive his potential rival of further attention. At the time, Nixon was also grappling with a deeply divided country after ten controversial and costly years of American deployment in Vietnam.
In his State of the Union address in January 1971, Nixon acknowledged a suffering nation: “In these troubled years just past, America has been going through a long nightmare of war and division, of crime and inflation. Even more deeply, we have gone through a long, dark night of the American spirit. But now that night is ending.” The president then turned from the negative to the positive by saying: “Now we must let our spirits soar again. Now we are ready for the lift of a driving dream.” One of those drivers would be the fight against cancer, an enemy that struck millions of Americans more directly than the Viet Cong and one that Nixon hoped would deliver a better result for his presidential legacy.
Nixon proposed that “the same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal.” He sought new and substantial funding for cancer research from Congress. While the State of the Union speech realized a landmark advance for Lasker’s cause, she faced her next challenge — congressional action to implement Nixon’s mandate for the War on Cancer.
In the spring of that year, the Senate promptly took up the cancer legislation, put forth by Kennedy, to appropriate an unprecedented amount of funds for research. However, the bill, known as S-34, met with some resistance from an unexpected source — a faction of the scientific community that ironically stood to benefit from more dollars distributed to research laboratories. Certain physicians and researchers argued that an attack on cancer was premature, given how much was still unknown about the disease. To challenge Lasker’s moonshot argument, Columbia University cancer scientist Sol Spiegelman claimed that “an all-out effort at this time would be like trying to land a man on the moon without knowing Newton’s laws of gravity.” Unlike Lasker, some scientists didn’t believe that a virtually endless supply of funding for cancer research would necessarily yield a cure, because money couldn’t buy scientific creativity and ideas, nor were advances typically the products of breakthroughs but rather of modest steps. Lasker dismissed her scientific opponents “as narrow-minded laboratory dwellers who seek little more than self-indulgent research grants.”
Kennedy, as the leading sponsor, and Lasker “line[d] up teams of experts to testify” that cancer-research dollars would yield results toward cures. Noting that “cancer was a leading concern everywhere,” Kennedy held 20 hearings in Washington and around the country. Lasker’s experts included several who had made cancer-treatment breakthroughs, such as Farber on treating some childhood leukemia patients. “That success… became a part of her message; if we could cure childhood leukemia, we can cure other cancers.”
Yet, Lasker’s most compelling argument in drawing lawmakers to her side was heartfelt and simple — the moral imperative to end suffering caused by the terrible disease. In Capitol Hill meetings, she habitually revealed that the number of cancer deaths each year far outweighed the number killed in the Vietnam War. As an example, the cancer-death toll in 1969 alone was eight times greater than the total number of deaths in six years of the Vietnam War. Additionally, she often produced “from her handbag a folded onionskin chart” tracing cancer appropriations over the years and “notebooks filled with statistics…on paltry sums” spent on researching cancer, as compared to huge amounts spent on producing chewing gum. Beyond her compelling display of facts and figures, Lasker had fine-tuned her congressional pitch to go beyond securing funds for research to attacking the very disease killing their constituents. Objecting to spending on cancer research became the equivalent to opposing “Mom, apple pie and the flag.”
To assure the bill’s passage, Lasker needed “to galvanize the public.” True to form, she once again turned to the media. Lasker had built a friendship with Eppie Lederer, the popular writer of the “Ask Ann Landers” advice column in The Chicago Sun Times. She encouraged Lederer to use her column both to alarm the public about cancer and to make it popular — and politically imperative — to join the fight against it.
On April 20, 1971, the ”Ask Ann Landers” column was published nationwide with the opening salvo: “If you want to be a part of an effort that might save millions of lives—and even your own—please stay with me.” With input from Lasker and the Citizens Committee for the Conquest of Cancer, Lederer revealed the shocking statistics on the miniscule government spending on cancer research compared to other government initiatives, such as the Vietnam War and the space program.
The column, perfectly timed to sway public opinion and impact lawmakers, explained that the Senate bill would establish a National Cancer Authority in the federal government and provide new funds for cancer research. Furthermore, “Ann Landers” urged her 90 million readers to get involved: “Today you have the opportunity to be part of the mightiest offensive against a single disease in the history of our country. If enough citizens let their senators know they want Bill S-34 passed, it will pass.” The effect of the column was not only felt by its readers, but also by the senators’ telegraphs and mailboxes. Within days of her column’s publication, Lederer wrote to Lasker that “all hell has broke loose” in the Senate, because “all the Senators [were] experiencing an unprecedented deluge of telegrams and letters in support of S-34.”
After successfully gaining the support of the American public and President Nixon, Lasker’s decades-long passion project headed toward its congressional climax. On July 7, 1971, the Senate bill, closely modeled after the proposal pushed by Lasker and the Panel of Consultants, passed overwhelmingly — 79 to 1. It would establish an independent cancer agency and provide $1.59 billion in funding for cancer research over three years. On December 9, 1971, the House, by a vote of 350 to 5, passed a modified version of the Senate bill, which kept the same funding to expand cancer research. Much to Lasker’s disappointment, however, the House version, spearheaded by Florida Representative Paul Rogers, failed to grant autonomy to the National Cancer Institute, instead keeping it as part of the NIH. When the House and Senate conference subsequently met to iron out their different versions, the lawmakers compromised. The House prevailed that NCI would remain part of NIH, but the Senate assured that its director would become a presidential appointee with the authority to propose budgets directly to the president.
When the bill landed on his desk, President Nixon weighed whether to hold a public event for the signing, which his advisers recommended as an opportunity “to cultivate a more compassionate persona.” Overcoming his initial reluctance for an event for fear that Kennedy would share the spotlight, Nixon hastily called a ceremony on December 23, 1971. “It was a beautiful day in Washington, … and we didn’t know until the very last minute whether he was going to sign it or not, in a big ceremony,” Lasker later recalled. As some 250 invited guests, including Lasker, were gathered at noon in the State Dining Room in the White House, Nixon signed the National Cancer Act of 1971, which he proclaimed “the most significant act taken during this administration.” Several weeks later, Nixon presented her with a “pen which I thought you might like to have as a memento of this significant step we have taken in our campaign against this dread disease.” Lasker reflected upon the style and substance of the arduous path to her campaign’s the landmark achievement. “It should be a novel” … of “a strange variety of ways and people,” she said. More substantively, the month after the law’s enactment, she said, “We’re just at the beginning of a new era. But how long it will take to eliminate cancer as a threat to human life, I don’t know. Of course it’s still a great big struggle.”
Over the subsequent years, as the National Cancer Act took effect, it became evident that its impact was more limited than Lasker had envisioned. Because the law had been forged by compromise through disparate interests, including those of the Laskerites, politicians, and scientists, it ended up not being as groundbreaking or as sweeping as Lasker originally envisioned. More significantly, increased research over many years demonstrated that cancer was far more complex than perhaps anyone had realized. The disease remains, to this day, a killer. Nonetheless, Lasker’s revolutionary work leading up to the National Cancer Act triggered advances in cancer research from prevention to new treatments, extending people’s life spans after their cancer diagnoses by six times compared to that in 1971. For her body of work on cancer research funding, Lasker was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, among other honors. Yet, the accolades she received from the nation’s esteemed American scientists arguably most genuinely characterized her lasting impact in their field. Jonas Salk called Lasker a “matchmaker between science and society.” Heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey said: “Mary Lasker is an institution unto herself. Asking what her importance has been is like asking what Harvard has meant to this country.”
Mary Lasker stands out as a compelling case study of how one individual —albeit an incredibly resourceful and insightful person willing to eschew social norms of the time and to employ unorthodox tactics —could advance positive change in America’s philanthropic, scientific and democratic communities. With her inimitably dynamic will, her priceless personal and professional relationships, and her ingenious media strategies, Lasker orchestrated a campaign in which each milestone had its own significance, and together generated the National Cancer Act. Starting from private interest and strengthened by financial and social attributes, Lasker launched her initiative to raise awareness of cancer and increase government funding for its research. She methodically overhauled the American Cancer Society and strengthened the National Cancer Institute, which eventually became the philanthropic and federal pillars of the nation’s fight against cancer. Lasker’s keen and consistent focus on federal funding allowed her to set specific goals and achieve measurable results. Throughout her campaign, Lasker skillfully captured public attention and subsequently shaped political attitudes and responses through her creative use of the media and her masterfully-built political alliances. The National Cancer Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Nixon in December 1971, marked the ultimate achievement of Lasker’s decades-long march for federal commitment and funding of cancer research. Remarkably, even forty years later, her comparison of the search for cancer’s cure to a “moonshot” continues to influence lawmakers: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced their own “moonshot” to cure cancer in 2016. Mary Lasker’s trail-blazing campaign not only transformed cancer awareness and public opinion during her own lifetime, but also established a strong foundation for future disease-focused philanthropy, political discourse, and action — above all in the field of cancer research.
Langley Grace Wallace is a Senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, District of Columbia. She wrote this paper for Steve Steinbach’s History of the United States course in the 2015/2016 academic year.