Medical philanthropist, political strategist, and health activist Mary Lasker (1900-1994) acted as the catalyst for the rapid growth of the biomedical research enterprise in the United States after World War II. Called "a matchmaker between science and society" by Jonas Salk, Lasker was a well-connected fundraiser and astute lobbyist who through charm, energy, and skillful use of the media persuaded donors, congressmen, and presidents to provide greatly increased funds for medical research as the main means of safeguarding the health and welfare of Americans. "You can solve any problem if you have money, people and equipment," was her principle.
Lasker adopted the traditional role of women as guarantors of health and well-being to gain entry into the male-dominated world of policy making and scientific research. In the process she perfected techniques of modern political lobbying, in particular coordinated promotions of legislative bills in the media and the presentation of high-profile expert witnesses in Congressional hearings. She helped propel the expansion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and pushed it into new directions by securing a place for laymen in its scientific advisory councils. At the same time, her determination, assertiveness, and influence brought her critics who charged that she overstepped her boundaries both as a layperson and as a woman.
Mary Woodard Lasker was born on November 30, 1900, in Watertown, Wisconsin, to Frank Elwin Woodard, a banker, and Sara Johnson Woodard, a homemaker. Her mother engaged in civic causes, campaigning for the establishment of public parks and instilling in Mary a lifelong interest in urban beautification.
Mary's childhood, though otherwise placid, was scarred by disease. Both of her parents had hypertension and died from strokes when Mary was in her thirties. She herself suffered from painful ear infections as a child. The absence of medical remedies against any of these conditions left her "deeply resentful" at an early age, she remembered, and would later fuel her advocacy of medical research and drug development to treat cardiovascular and other diseases.
Mary studied at the University of Wisconsin and at Radcliffe College, from where she graduated in 1923 with a major in art history. After postgraduate study at Oxford she settled in New York City, where she worked in a gallery that featured modern French paintings. She married the owner, art dealer Paul Reinhardt, in 1926, and became a knowledgeable collector herself, eventually building one of the premier private art collections in the country.
After divorcing Reinhardt in 1934, Mary had to make a living on her own in the midst of the Great Depression. She launched "Hollywood Patterns," a successful line of inexpensive fabrics decorated with photos of movie stars. She also made her first foray into public health activism: in 1938, she became secretary of the Birth Control Federation of America and later of its successor, the Planned Parenthood Federation.
Mary was 38 when she met Albert Davis Lasker (1880-1952) in a New York restaurant in April 1939. Lasker, owner of the Lord & Thomas advertising agency of Chicago and often called the father of modern advertising, had made a fortune by pioneering the use of logos and slogans to establish distinctive brands, most famously Lucky Strike cigarettes. Albert was impressed by Mary's acumen as a businesswoman, and shared her interest both in art and in improving public health. The two married on June 22, 1940.
After Albert sold his advertising company in 1942, the couple devoted itself to making health insurance more widely available and to improving the health of Americans by fostering research on major diseases. He insisted that it would take government funding to achieve the kind of medical progress Mary envisioned. "I don't know anyone in government," she replied. As a corporate leader and chairman of the United States Shipping Board during World War II, Albert did. "So I got in to see people," Mary laconically described the beginning of nearly half a century of high-stakes federal lobbying.
To promote their causes, the Laskers in 1942 established the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The foundation created America's most prestigious prizes in basic and clinical research, as well as a prize in medical journalism. Mary served as president of the foundation, while her sister, Alice Fordyce (1906-1992) was its administrator and the director of the Lasker Awards program.
The Laskers supported President Harry Truman's proposal for universal health insurance, at a time when nearly all business leaders and physicians decried it as "socialized medicine." Faced with such opposition, as well as with Albert's cancer (he would die of the disease in 1952), Mary turned her focus to fostering medical research. She renewed her support for universal health insurance when the political climate was more hospitable, namely during the debate over Medicare in 1965. But for her, and more out of political necessity than choice, medical research took the place of universal health insurance: she thought that its advances would produce new cures that were Americans' best protection against death and disease.
The Laskers drew on their money, connections, and high-profile foundation to garner federal financing of medical research, a controversial idea at a time when such research was the domain of universities, non-profit institutes, and private business. They concentrated on cancer, mental health, and birth control, and later added heart disease, arthritis, and hypertension. Their first project was to reorganize the American Cancer Society by committing it to large-scale fundraising, publicity, and lobbying campaigns.
A lifelong Democrat, Lasker made campaign contributions to sympathetic legislators of both parties and enjoyed access to the White House. Her lobbying efforts, aided by her friend Florence Mahoney, lobbyist Mike Gorman, and several prominent "citizen witnesses," dramatically increased federal expenditures for medical research. "Mary and her little lambs," as detractors called the medical research lobby, were a driving force behind the growth of NIH in the two decades after the war, when its budget increased from just over $3 million to nearly $1 billion. She herself helped guide NIH as a member of its cancer and heart disease advisory panels. Sam Broder, director of the National Cancer Institute in the late 1980s, hailed Lasker as "a genius who forced the realization that the federal government must commit itself to medical research to benefit all Americans."
"I am opposed to heart attacks and cancer and strokes the way I am opposed to sin," Lasker explained her single-minded pursuit of medical research dollars. For her, the eradication of disease was a realistic goal that could be achieved by bold initiatives to turn science into cures. However, her impatience to speed the transfer of medical knowledge from bench to bedside brought her increasingly into conflict with scientists and lawmakers. Her opponents objected that establishment of separate NIH institutes by disease category rather than by scientific discipline, the rush for clinical testing of such experimental treatments as cancer chemotherapy, and heavily publicized campaigns to "conquer" complex and poorly-understood diseases like cancer were unproductive because they ran counter to the thrust of basic research: to gain knowledge of the cellular and genetic mechanisms underlying disease on which effective therapies could be based.
Lasker often prevailed in these debates because her focus on "dread diseases" was a compelling political strategy that created powerful legislative and electoral constituencies for biomedical research. Nevertheless, as the journalist Elizabeth Drew wrote at the height of Lasker's influence in the mid-1960s, "Mrs. Lasker has been considered an able woman who has done good things but is too covetous of power, too insistent on her pursuits, too confident of her own expertise in the minutiae of medicine." In the 1970s, her influence diminished as the controversial "War on Cancer" she helped launch faltered, new cures for the most deadly diseases failed to materialize, and biomedical scientists, more numerous and dependent on federal funding than ever, created their own lobbying organizations.
Mary's other passion was urban beautification. She sponsored the planting of trees and flowers and the construction of lighting and fountains in public spaces in Washington and her home of New York. A pink tulip, her favorite, was named after her as a tribute in the mid-1980s.
She served as director, chairman, or trustee of the American Cancer Society, the United Cerebral Palsy Research and Education Foundation, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, and a range of other medical and cultural organizations. She received over three dozen honorary degrees and awards, chief among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1969, and a special Congressional Gold Medal in 1989.
When Lasker died on February 21, 1994, at age 94, she left more than $10 million to the Lasker Foundation to support medical research and urban beautification. Her legacy was the creation of the powerful medical research lobby, the establishment of the world's largest and most successful biomedical research enterprise, and the elevation of medical research as the primary way to ensure the well-being of all Americans.