HealthCommentary

Exploring Human Potential

Who’s This?

Hint: They lived in NYC, Miami and Wash, DC at the crossroads of advertising, politics and philanthropy. Answer: (From L. clockwise) Albert Lasker, Florence Mahoney, Daniel Mahoney, Mary Lasker.

(Excerpted from CODE BLUE: Inside the Medical-Industrial Complex) Grove Atlantic/2019

“For more than half a century, Mary Lasker and Florence Mahoney, both born to wealth and social standing, managed to steer legislation and financial appropriations to reflect their own priorities: intervention over prevention, segmentation over integration, applied research focused on interventional therapies more than basic science research, active inclusion of industry in major policy decisions, and the establishment of an integrated career ladder that encouraged ethical compromise and the skewing of fundamental checks and balances.18 With nothing but good intentions, these women worked in a way that all but guaranteed a system riddled with conflicts and unintended consequences.

The timing wasn’t perfect. The Depression was about to take its toll on the art market, and Reinhardt sank into a deep depression worsened by alcohol abuse. In 1934, after eight years of marriage, Mary cut her losses.21,22 Freed from responsibility for her ailing husband, she was able to travel in the highest levels of society in New York City. She met not only the top politicians, leading philanthropists, and academic elites, but also the leading proponent of birth control, Margaret Sanger of the Birth Control Federation of America. Mary was hooked and soon signed up for service.23

Reaching out for financial support for her favorite causes, she turned to a dynamic advertising man, Albert Lasker, who had launched some of America’s most recognizable consumer brands, including Lucky Strike cigarettes, Wrigley’s chewing gum, Pepsodent toothpaste, and Sunkist oranges. Known as the “father of modern advertising,” Lasker was also politically connected, having helped engineer Warren Harding’s successful presidential campaign in 1920. 

Lasker became deeply committed to Mary’s activism, and he donated to the cause, though his most lasting contribution to Margaret Sanger’s legacy undoubtedly was his suggestion that she change the name of her Birth Control Federation of America to the Planned Parenthood Federation. 

When Mary and Albert married in 1940, the world was preparing for war, and Mary could see there was little interest in a domestic initiative like national health insurance. So she focused all her energy on medical research.

The Laskers realized early that they would need a credible health-related national organization to anchor and launch their campaign for a federal role in medical research comparable to the effort in war-related science led by Vannevar Bush. In 1943, they set their sights on the American Society for the Control of Cancer, an organization created in 1913 by 10 physicians meeting at the Harvard Club in New York City and led by Dr. Clement Cleveland.2 The leadership was more than happy to grant the Laskers easy entry to their board in return for financial support. 

By 1944, the Laskers had seized control of the board, largely dumped the doctors, and renamed the group the American Cancer Society (ACS). Its leadership was now composed of name-brand corporate heads, entertainment giants, and advertising executives. Its purpose was also clearly restated: The goal was now to cure cancer.

To add further glory to the idea of Big Science, Mary and Albert created the annual Lasker Awards, with the somewhat self-serving tagline “Sometimes called ‘America’s Nobels.’”29 As they chose recipients, they consciously developed relationships and secured their recipients’ commitments to support expanded federal funding in biomedicine. Luminaries from the Army Medical Corps, including cardiac surgeon Michael DeBakey and psychiatrist William Menninger, were early honorees, as was Sidney Farber, a Boston Children’s Hospital expert on childhood leukemia.

Albert had been happy to provide seed money and introductions and to selectively engage his television and media friends like RCA’s David Sarnoff and Reader’s Digest’s DeWitt Wallace to, among other things, break the taboo around mentioning the word “cancer.”24,30 But he wasn’t prepared to be Mary’s constant companion in Washington, DC. Luckily, she met a like-minded friend with a slightly different style but equal determination and strength to serve that role. Her name was Florence Mahoney.

Born one year before Mary Lasker in Muncie, Indiana, Mahoney was raised in a privileged family and embraced women’s rights, health, and exercise as a young girl.18 She worked in a children’s hospital, and her subsequent career as a teacher eventually morphed into journalism. This second career received a boost in 1926, when she met and married Daniel J. Mahoney Sr., the president of Cox Newspapers.

While Mary and Florence shared a common philosophy anchored in women’s rights and family health, the two had somewhat different styles.33 Mary was more direct and in-your-face, demanding, and not shy about self-promotion. Florence was the perfect hostess, a softer but no less deliberate sell, who proudly wore the label “unpaid lobbyist” until she died in 2002 at the age of 103.18

Lasker and Mahoney first pushed for research institutes independent of the National Institute of Health (then still singular) before shifting their position in 1946 in favor of expanding its research capabilities. Several new research institutes were established with their support by 1950, including the National Heart Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Diseases (now Disorders) and Blindness, each with the ability to award research grants to investigators throughout the country and the world. With lobbying support, the NIH budget grew 150-fold, to $460 million, between 1945 and 1961, and reached $1 billion by the late 1960s

For the full story: ORDER CODE BLUE HERE.
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