A Leading Light in Cancer Advances, Mary Lasker Used Wealth and Connections to Increase Funding for Medical Research

Get Permission

Called the ‘fairy godmother of medical research’ by BusinessWeek magazine, Ms. Lasker helped raise the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from just $2 million in 1945 to over $5 billion in 1985.

Born in Watertown, Wisconsin, in 1900, Mary Woodard Lasker was introduced to the ravages of cancer when she was just 3 or 4 years old and went with her mother to visit the family’s laundress, Mrs. Belter, who had just undergone surgery for breast cancer. On the way over to Mrs. Belter’s home, Ms. Lasker’s mother explained that the laundress had had both her breasts removed. The experience left an indelible memory.

“I thought, this shouldn’t happen to anybody,” Ms. Lasker told an interviewer in 1965. “And when I stood in the room and [saw] this miserable sight with her children crowding around her, I was absolutely infuriated, indignant, that this woman should suffer so and that there should be no help for her. I was encouraged, however, by the fact that Mrs. Belter survived, and I recall noticing that cancer didn’t have to be fatal even though it was very cruel. And I’ll never forget my anger at hearing about this disease that caused such suffering and mutilation and my thinking that something should be done about this.”

Four decades later, in 1942, Ms. Lasker and her husband Albert, owner of the largest advertising agency in the United States (Lord and Thomas), established the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. Still in place today, the Foundation was set up to reward scientists and physicians for their contributions in basic and translational research in cancer as well as other diseases. The couple also used their wealth and social connections to garner federal funding for medical research in cancer, heart disease, arthritis, hypertension, and mental health.

Takeover of the ASCC

In 1943, Mary Lasker met with Dr. Clarence Cook Little, Director of the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) in New York, to learn what the organization was doing to advance cancer research. She was appalled by the small size of the operation and its meager annual budget of about $250,000. Utilizing Albert Lasker’s business skills—his advertising campaigns in the 1920s boosted sales of Lucky Strike cigarettes among women with the words, “Light a Lucky and you’ll never miss sweets that make you fat”—and Mary’s social connections, the couple took over the ASCC’s board of directors and, in 1944, renamed the organization the American Cancer Society (ACS).

At this point, doctors and medical researchers were largely ousted from the organization and replaced by a lay group of businessmen, movie producers, admen, and friends of the Laskers (dubbed the “Laskerites” by the media). The couple reorganized the ACS using a business model that incorporated advertising and publicity strategies to raise funds, increase the public’s faith in medical science, and promote the idea that research could find a “cure” for cancer.

Four years later, the ACS raised $14 million, one-quarter of which was devoted to research grants.

Called the “fairy godmother of medical research” by BusinessWeek magazine, Ms. Lasker used her political skills and contacts to lobby Congress to increase federal expenditures for medical research. She helped raise the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from just $2 million in 1945 to over $5 billion in 1985.

Partnering with Sidney Farber

Recognizing the need for a scientific strategist who could be her ally in fundraising but also have impeccable credentials in cancer research, Ms. Lasker teamed up with Sidney Farber, MD—who in 1947 used antifolates to induce remissions in children with leukemia—to expedite the discovery of approaches to cancer prevention and cure. According to The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD, “The idea of chemotherapy—a chemical that could cure cancer outright—fascinated Lasker.”1

That fascination was coupled with a new sense of urgency to find effective treatments for cancer when Albert Lasker was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1951 and died the following year. However, Ms. Lasker’s impatience to speed laboratory discoveries and bring new chemotherapies to market put her increasingly at odds with scientists and lawmakers. They resented her intrusion into their territory with her lobbying efforts for more cancer funding and insistence on separating NIH institutes by disease category rather than by scientific discipline, which she thought was slowing progress.

Such a complete restructuring of the NIH, argued officials and scientists, would prohibit essential interaction among its researchers and undermine the quality of basic research across the NIH. Academic researchers, who were dependent on federal funding, also opposed decentralizing the NIH over fears that it would cost them their share of biomedical research grants.

Lasting Legacy

Ms. Lasker’s efforts helped gain passage of the National Cancer Act of 1971, which provided the unprecedented sum of $1.59 billion for cancer research over a 3-year period. By the end of the decade, however, her influence on the “War on Cancer” began to decline, as new cures for the disease failed to materialize and the public’s skepticism of impending scientific breakthroughs in cancer research and treatment grew.

Nevertheless, Mary Lasker’s contribution to the advancement of cancer awareness and fundraising for research provided the groundwork for unprecedented progress in cancer treatment over the past 40 years—but not the cure that she had hoped for.

By the time she died of heart failure in 1994, Mary Lasker rarely spoke “about the achievements (or disappointments) of the War on Cancer,” wrote Dr. Mukherjee. “The complexity, the tenacity—the sheer magisterial force of cancer—had made even its most committed and resolute opponent seem circumspect and humbled.” ■


1. Mukherjee S: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. New York, Scribner, 2010.