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Judith L. Pearson On Mary Lasker, The “Catalytic Agent” Who Revolutionized U.S. Medical Research

by Brendan Dowling on October 26, 2023

Mary Lasker’s name is perhaps unknown to many people living today, yet so many of us owe a debt to her incredible life’s work. A former art gallerist, Lasker combined her political brilliance with her access to lawmakers to not only shift public thinking around cancer and other diseases, but also bring in a previously unimaginable sum of money to kickstart medical research in the United States. This self-described “catalytic agent” spent several decades on her goal to end human suffering, and her accomplishments number founding the Lasker Foundation, retooling the American Cancer Society and jumpstarting their donor base, and transforming the National Institutes of Health into the medical research powerhouse they remain today. Along the way, she developed close friendships with some of the most powerful people in the United States. But Lasker faced significant pushback from the media and lawmakers. In Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life Of Mary Lasker, Judith L. Pearson brings Lasker to vivid life, diving deep into her extraordinary friendships, her arduous journey to reshape how the medical field (and general public) viewed diseases, and her extraordinary love story with her husband Albert. A fascinating biography that whisks the reader from New York high society to medical labs to the White House, Pearson’s book shines a long-overdue light on the brilliant life of a true American hero. Pearson spoke with us about how Lasker’s political acumen, tireless drive, and rich friendships brought about her formidable accomplishments.

I had never heard about Mary Lasker and I think that’s probably true for a lot of people who aren’t associated with the medical community. How did you first learn about her? 

Well, and just as an edit, even people in the medical community don’t know who she is, so you’re certainly not alone. My last book came out in March of 2021, From Shadows To Life, A Biography Of The Cancer Survivorship Movement. As a result of doing research for that, Mary Lasker made an appearance in the very first chapter, so her biography is actually the prequel to that book. I feel a little bit like George Lucas here. (laughs) In researching her some more, I realized that she was not only a big deal, but she was exactly the kind of subject that I so adore writing about.

What were those qualities that made her so compelling to research and write about? 

One of the first things I always ask myself as I’m researching potential book subjects is what was their motivation? Why did they do what they did? I’m thoroughly interested in human courage and why people persevere down avenues that seem impossible, and–thankfully not in Mary’s case–but sometimes even dangerous, and they go at it anyway. So learning that Mary was so wealthy as a result of marrying Albert, and had such a social swirl around her, why on earth would she spend five decades of her life pounding the halls of Congress? 

She had a very good reason: mostly because she just felt so sorry for people who were suffering. Her first introduction to cancer was when she was just a child, like five or six, and her mother took her to visit the family laundress who had breast cancer and had just had a mastectomy. This would have been in the first decade of the 20th century, so the surgery was pretty awful. Mary remembered this clearly and she repeated this [story] over and over again in different instances in her oral history. She remembered this woman lying on this low cot with all these children standing around her and how dreadful the scene was. On the way over, her mother was preparing her and when she said, “She had her breasts removed.” Mary said,”Like cut off?” And her mother said, “Yeah, like cut off.” That really stuck with her. That was the biggest thing. Then sadly, both of her parents died of heart and blood-pressure related diseases. She just could not accept that all of that was God’s will.

Reading the book, I was really struck by how compassionate and empathetic her mother was. What were the kind of foundational lessons that Mary learned from her mother that she brought to her later work?

It’s interesting because several of my books’ subjects have had very progressive or forward-thinking parents, or at least one parent who was very forward and progressive thinking, and they seem to drive my subjects along. In Mary’s case, her mother’s family was a very large family. Mary’s grandfather had three wives. The first two died and with each wife he had more children. This was all in Ireland. Mary’s mother was Sarah, and Sarah just didn’t want that. She didn’t want to have a bushel full of kids, she wanted to have some kind of interesting life. So she packed her bags, left Ireland at the age of eighteen in the late 19th century, and came to the US. In less than a decade she became the highest paid woman in Chicago as the head dressmaker for Carson Pirie Scott. She just had the drive to follow through on things. At the same time, she loved the beauty of the world around her. She loved flowers, loved parks, and she was very civic minded. So all of those things that drive the love of beauty and the civic mindedness just became the perfect storm for Mary’s life.

Can you talk about what was the state of cancer and heart disease research when Mary’s advocacy first started? How were those diseases perceived by the general public and also the medical community?

In the early 19th century, the human body became more and more understood. Let’s even go back a little bit further. The human body was becoming more and more understood, and for all  America’s industrial might–and later, our military might–we were incredibly behind in medical education. Of course, today that blows everybody’s mind. But we were and as a matter of fact, doctors would actually go to France and Germany and go study medicine there. Medical schools as we know them today didn’t exist. Doctors would sometimes graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree, and sometimes they wouldn’t go to college at all, but they were going to medical training in Europe. 

Of course, 100 plus years ago, there wasn’t a great deal understood about heart disease and cancer. Cancer still, and this is no big surprise, has a lot of mystery surrounding it. Heart disease we’ve got a much better handle on. But the interesting thing was that it’s sort of this self-fulfilling prophecy. Since there was no research being done, there were no good results for people who had high blood pressure or cancer. And since there was really very little a doctor could say other than, “You’re going to die,” they just said very little at all. People always died and it was usually–particularly in the case of cancer–a very long, painful death. 

So without research being done, people died. Because people were dying, it sort of felt like, “Why should we research something that’s always going to be fatal?” Again, it went back to the belief, regardless of what faith people were, that it was God’s will. “I’ve got X number of years left, this is my lot, I’m going to die.” Mary said, “That’s ridiculous.” Actually her early interest was in mental health and psychology and trying to understand why people were depressed or, as her first husband was, alcoholic and what caused all of these things. That was coupled with the fact that Mary and Albert learned that–and this blows my mind–40% of the people enlisting for World War II, so that would have been from December of 1941 forward, 40% of those people enlisting were rejected for simple medical issues. [These were issues] that would have been really easy to take care of if their Primary care physicians or the local family doctor just said, “Oh, you know what? You should stop eating red meat. You should stop smoking.” 

I was blown away that you make the point that it was kind of the de facto policy in the mid-twentieth century not to talk about cancer on TV or radio.

It was. Again, it was because it was just such a death sentence. Up until the 1980s, cancer was still thought in some circles to be contagious. Humans had learned that diseases that kill people are most often contagious, so why wouldn’t cancer be the same way? If people knew that you had a cancer diagnosis–or even if you were cancer free–and you were invited to someone’s house for a dinner party or a cocktail party, they didn’t want you eating on their plates or drinking from their glasses, because what if they couldn’t get your nasty cancer germs out? You could be asked on a job application if you’d ever had cancer, because people really were wigged out in offices and factories working next to somebody who could spread their disease. 

What were the specific skills and talents that Mary brought to her advocacy and this tenacious battle that she waged in order to fund research for these diseases? 

Beyond the things that I spoke of earlier, Mary’s mother was also very education focused. There was no question that her daughters were not only going to get a high school degree, but they were going to go to college as well. Mary was educated, smart, and she was incredibly resourceful. When she graduated from college as an art history major she got a job in New York City in an art gallery that belonged to a man who ultimately became her first husband. They had a great couple of years together. He had been drinking and she told him before they were married that if he stopped drinking, she would get married. He stopped for a year, she married him, and they had a great time. 

Sort of simultaneously he began drinking again, the stock market crashed, and the depression set in. There weren’t a lot of people buying art during those really horrible years. His drinking got worse. She said, “First of all, I need to get myself out of this situation. But then, how am I going to earn a living?” Well, the movies were incredibly important for people then because they were an escape. At the same time women couldn’t afford to shop in stores, so they were making their own clothing. Mary came up with the idea of “Hollywood Patterns.” She got celebrities–Irene Dunne, Fay Wray–to endorse these patterns so women could make dresses that made them look like movie stars. She made a really good living,like a half a cent per pattern, and she did really well. 

That resourcefulness is just really important too, because even though later on in her life, it wasn’t a question of “how am I going to make money,” because as I said she was extremely wealthy because of Albert’s success. But that resourcefulness, that “never say die” attitude, and her persistence were what helped her to keep marching forward to increase the medical research funding coffers.

You just mentioned Albert. Theirs is such an incredible love story, and it seems very modern in terms of how they really encouraged each other to be their best self. Can you talk about their relationship and what each person learned from the other?

They were like teenagers in love. They were just so sweet. He was about twenty years older than she was, which worried her mother who had already seen that not work out so well in the first marriage. But their interest and curiosity in the world around them was really what drew them together. They were both very interested in politics, although Albert at the time was a rabid Republican and Mary was a Democrat. They were able to have great political discussions, great business discussions. He too loved flowers, but he didn’t know very much about them, so she was able to teach him those things, as well as share with him her interest in art. He really knew nothing about art. He had sort of the same opinion that my darling husband does, that you have to have some magical education to appreciate art and that’s not true at all. Their art collecting escapades were quite fun, but the bottom line was that together they built one of the largest private art collections in the country ever. It was really fascinating. 

Albert also had an interest in health and had contributed frequently to the American Society for the Control of Cancer, which the two of them rebranded into the American Cancer Society. They had this joint quest for wanting to not only enjoy their own lives that their riches allowed them to do, but also to better their fellow men and women.

Something that really jumped off the page for me was Albert’s lack of vanity in terms of when he didn’t know something and how he was totally willing to admit that and happy to learn as much as possible from whomever.

Right, and for someone as accomplished as he was in business and successful as he was, with that typically comes a very pompous, closed-off attitude. I hope I’m not insulting anyone, but sometimes that’s the case. (laughs) So yes, his curiosity and willingness to learn about anything. In fact, his friends said that Mary was the best thing to happen to him after his first wife died and that he actually got younger as he got older. I just celebrated a birthday yesterday. I said to all my friends last night, that’s my new mantra. I’m going to get  younger as I get older. (laughs)

Mary had these incredible friendships with other women throughout the 20th century, specifically Anna Rosenberg Hoffman, who was this extraordinary public official who eventually was the Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Truman administration. Can you talk about their friendship?

Absolutely, and I’m pleased to say that a biography about Anna came out as well in March, so that author and I have friended each other. We’re going to do a joint event early next year. It’s really very interesting because Mary makes appearances in his book and vice versa. Anna was another one who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. I think that’s part of why she and Mary got along so well. Plus, much like Mary’s relationship with Albert, they had similarities and then they also had strengths that the other could draw from. 

In Anna’s case, she was a Hungarian immigrant who just really plowed forward in young adulthood as a publicist in New York City. She soon had a state congressman who wanted her assistance, then the mayor hired her, and then pretty soon she moved into national political publicity. Her New York connections brought her onto the radar of Governor Franklin Roosevelt, then later President. Roosevelt tapped her to be a part of the Defense Department and they became very close. By the time Mary met her it was around 1941. Anna already very much had the president’s ear. She introduced Mary to the Roosevelts. Mary spent the night in the White House for the very first time when Franklin was the president, and that was not the last time because she realized the importance of having a president as a friend and also the importance of having friends in high places.

Her friendship with Lady Bird Johnson was so significant to her also, wasn’t it?

It was, it really was. Again, it came from Mary understanding that then Senator Johnson was very important for some of the things that she was doing, [like] the additional funding she was seeking for the different institutes. Before Mary Lasker, the National Institute of Health was singular. Mary said, “This is crazy. We need more research funding, we need the government to start researching,” because Albert had said to her, “It doesn’t matter how much money we have. You don’t need my kind of money. There is money in the federal government and I’ll show you how to get it.” So Mary started this crusade, thus the title, to increase funding. She needed Senators and Representatives, along with presidents, who would be sympathetic to that. By knowing Lyndon she got to know Lady Bird. She realized that Mary was her friend and Mary was thrilled when Johnson was elected. And Lady Bird was looking for something to make her project. She too loved flowers. So together, the two of them launched the “Beautify America” campaign.

It’s important to point out that even though she was friends with all these very influential and powerful people, it wasn’t like a craven grab for power. She really did have a deep and substantial friendship with each of them.

She did. I have to say I get very defensive of my book subjects because I live with them for a long time, both during the writing and then through the publication for as long as the book is in print, which I’m happy to say all of mine still are. I get very defensive because so often I rely heavily on a newspaper database, which is wonderful because I can read what was being written and printed at the time. But there were a great many people who were not so keen on Mary’s drive, and they varied from people in government to journalists questioning why she would be marching and be so insistent in her crusade. Obviously it wasn’t that she wanted the money, because it was government money. She wasn’t getting a kickback from anyone. Nor as you said, did she need the power. She wasn’t interested. She could have sat home and had a pretty fabulous eating bonbons in her seven-story townhouse.

I think this might be self-evident based on the conversation we’ve already had. But what do you hope readers take away from Mary Lasker’s life story?

One of my very favorite quotes of all time that seems to apply often was by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The number one thing that I hope readers take away as a learning point is that you are never too small or too impotent to make a change, because even a small change in any industry, in any situation, has many many  ripples. And Mary did indeed have great wealth, great privilege, great contacts, so her changes were bigger than small. 

The second thing is that I think we tend to forget and become blasé about what we have today, in our world, in our country, in terms of medical treatment and medical miracles, really. Now, because of every step Mary took, which produced more money for more researchers, in 2023 we have cancer treatments where the body itself learns to seek out cancer cells and destroy them like Pac-Man. Your own immune system goes after cancer cells! You probably would have been institutionalized for saying that 100 years ago, that the body could actually cure itself from cancer.

That’s amazing. And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

I’d like librarians everywhere to know that I’m happy to do a Zoom book club presentation, anytime, anywhere. I am so very fortunate living in Phoenix, we have a fabulous main library downtown that has an extensive collection of magazines that are bound, going back as far as [their first] publications. So the first “Time” magazines, the first “Life” magazines. Very often, when I would read about “as she was quoted in ‘Time’ or ‘US News and World Report,’” I would make lists of these and trot myself down to the Burton Barr library and there they would all be. Secondly, I have extensively used collegiate libraries. What I’ve come to find out is that if you live near a college or university, it doesn’t really matter what size, and they have a library, chances are pretty good you could go in there, whether you were researching for a book, for genealogy, or you just want to see what the kids are reading these days. It’s a really cool place to be. 

The last really wonderful library that I continue to use is the National Library of Medicine, which is located on the National Institutes of Health Campus. Again, you have to do a little bit of work to get yourself in, but we as citizens fund NIH and the library, and so we too can access it. It has marvelous, marvelous pieces of medical history.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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