In the early twentieth century, cancer assumed a more prominent place in the popular imagination as the threat of contagious diseases reduced and Americans lived longer. In this regard, the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC), founded in 1913, had identified three goals: education, service, and research. However, until midcentury, largely due to the limited budget, the society contributed little to cancer research.
Enter Mary Woodard Lasker
One of the most powerful women in mid-twentieth-century New York City, and perhaps North America, Lasker demonstrated that women could command transformations in medical institutions. Born in Wisconsin in 1900, Mary Lasker, at the age of four, found out that the family’s laundress, Mrs. Belter, had cancer treatment. Lasker’s mother explained, “Mrs. Belter has had cancer and her breasts have been removed.” Lasker responded, “What do you mean? Cut off?” Decades later, Mary Lakser would mention this early memory that had inspired her to engage in cancer work.
After having established herself as an influential New York philanthropist, businesswoman, and political lobbyist, when Mary Lasker inquired about the role of the ASCC in 1943, she learned that the organization had no money to support research. Somewhat astounded by this discovery, she immediately contemplated ways to reorganize the society. She wanted to recreate the society into a powerful organization that prioritized cancer research.
Well-versed in public relations, connected to the financial and political circles of the country, Lasker played a central role in the mid-1940s. Despite notable opposition, Lasker convinced the ASCC to change the composition of the board of directors to include more lay members and more experts in financial management. She urged the council to adopt a new name, the American Cancer Society. She also convinced them to earmark one-quarter of its budget for research. This financial reorganization allowed the ACS to sponsor early cancer screening, including the early clinical trials. The newly formed American Cancer Society articulated a mission that explicitly identified research funding as its primary goal.
By late 1944, the American Cancer Society had become the principal nongovernmental funding agency for cancer research in the country. In its first year, it directed $1 million of its $4 million in revenue to study. Her ardent advocacy for greater funding of all the medical sciences contributed to increased funding for the National Institutes of Health and the creation of several NIH institutes, including the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.
Mary Lasker continued to agitate for research funds but resisted any formal association. As she explained it, “I’m always best on the outside.” Undoubtedly, Mary Lasker’s influence and emphasis on funding cancer research contributed to promoting the Pap smear in U.S. culture. As a permanent monument to her efforts, in 1984, Congress named the Mary Woodard Lasker Center for Health Research and Education at the National Institutes of Health.
A portion of a letter ACS administrative director Edwin MacEwan wrote to Lasker encapsulates her contribution to our society. He wrote, “I learned that you were the person to whom present and potential cancer patients owe everything and that you alone really initiated the rebirth of the American Cancer Society late in 1944.”
“If you think research is expensive, try disease.”
—Mary Woodard Lasker (November 30, 1900 – February 21, 1994)
- The Lasker Foundation (http://www.laskerfoundation.org/about/)
- Mary Lasker Papers, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, N.Y.
- Early Detection: Women, Cancer, & Awareness Campaigns in the Twentieth-century United States by Kirsten Elizabeth Gardner