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Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker

Booklist calls it, “(A) fascinating portrait of a medical champion deserving more wide-spread recognition.”

The Washington Independent Review of Books says, “Pearson uses Lasker’s words to great effect in this artfully crafted biography … (her) clear and concise writing serves the narrative well.
Her attention to detail is stunning.”

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“I am opposed to heart disease and cancer the way one is opposed to sin.” With that as her battle cry, health activist and philanthropist, Mary Woodard Lasker, had a singular goal: saving lives by increasing medical research. Together with her husband, advertising genius Albert, they created the Lasker Foundation, bestowing the Lasker Awards, the most prestigious research awards in America.

Next, the Laskers transformed the sleepy and ineffectual American Society for the Control of Cancer, reimagining it as the American Cancer Society and overseeing a dramatic rise in its donations for the study of cancer. 

But the real increase in medical research occurred when Mary discovered a revolutionary funding source: the federal government. “I’m just a catalytic agent,” she would insist. Yet juxtaposed against her fabulous homes, jaw-dropping jewels, and museum-worthy art collection, Mary’s tireless lobbying before Congress and presidents alike expanded the National Institutes of Health from a single entity to the largest research facility in the world. A feminist who used her femininity wisely, her ultimate victory was bringing together two political adversaries to launch the original cancer moonshot: the 1971 National Cancer Act. Those research dollars turned the tide on survivorship of the disease. 

This engaging and deeply researched biography paints the portrait of a woman who was savvy, steely, and deliberate. Mary Lasker courageously positioned herself at the crossroads of politics, science and medicine, leading the country’s march to conquer humanity’s most feared maladies.

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Skilled author Pearson [writes a] fascinating portrait of a medical champion deserving more wide-spread recognition.


The headline on the front page of the morning newspaper read: “Ike Turns Over NATO Command to Ridgway.” General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s May 31, 1952, move was made to pave the way for his presidential run (at which he succeeded in November of that year). But it was a headline below that would have far greater world impact: “Lasker, Pioneer in Advertising, Dies of Cancer.”

Albert Lasker had, indeed, been an advertising pioneer. But to reduce the sum total of his life to just that one accomplishment would be akin to mentioning that Leonardo da Vinci did a little sketching. And of all the journeys Albert had made in his seventy-two years, the most important one was down the aisle with his third wife, Mary Woodard Reinhardt.

Mary had not ventured far from her beloved husband since his diagnosis of “intestinal cancer” in his final months. She had been at his bedside on the misty morning he died in New York City’s Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. Albert was Jewish, a faith whose tradition is to bury the deceased soon after death. Mary would follow through on the tradition, but first held a private fu- neral two days later in their lavish home on Beekman Place. It was sardonically surreal that a couple who had spent the past dozen years giving their energy and resources to conquer the disease should now be separated from each other because of it.

The Laskers had an extraordinary partnership. They were madly in love, and their marriage was unlike any other relationship either of them had had before. Each was successful in business, and each had strong personality traits, but like a beautiful mosaic, it all blended rather than conflicted. Mary guided Albert to appreciate fine art; he counseled her on how to garner publicity for their mutual passion, the cure of deadly and debilitating diseases.

Albert had built an immensely successful advertising empire, counting Lucky Strike cigarettes, Wrigley’s gum, Sunkist oranges, and others among his clients. He retired in 1942 with an enormous amount of money and an equally enormous amount of time and energy needing a new direction. In December of that year, he and Mary launched the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation to, as Mary described, “promote health through education and research.” Their hope was that the small financial awards that followed would not only fund new research projects but also put those researchers into a brighter spotlight, potentially leading to further support. There was so much yet to be discovered.

At that time in America, heart disease, stroke, and cancer killed more people than all other causes of death combined. A heart attack or stroke was likely to end a life immediately, if not soon afterward. But cancer was by far the most feared, as it killed slowly, agonizingly. Patients languished in hospitals, their open sores emitting nauseating odors, their skin hanging loosely on unrecogniz- able faces, their screams of pain filling the corridors. Since most other horrific diseases were contagious, hushed questions about cancer’s contagion abounded. Further whispers wondered if the patient had brought the disease on him- or herself through an illegal or immoral act. Such rumors and misinformation forced patients and their families into shamed isolation. Surgery, radium, and X-ray therapy made up the entirety of the era’s treatment arsenal. Just one person in four would survive the diagnosis. Thus, with little at their disposal, doctors routinely avoided even disclosing the diagnosis of the “Big C” to their patients.

By the time of the Laskers’ 1940 wedding, cancer was personal to each of them. Mary had watched close friends die of the disease; before they met, Al- bert’s younger brother, Harry, had succumbed at the age of thirty-nine. A 1943 newspaper article prompted Mary to pay a visit to the American Society for the Control of Cancer. The staid organization, she learned, consisted of doctors and scientists whose sole focus was the treatment of the disease, not how to prevent or cure it. The society had a $50,000 annual budget (the equivalent of nearly $858,000 in 2023), with none of it earmarked for research. She made a $5,000 donation and went home determined to change things.

Together, the Laskers reimagined the organization, rechristening it as the American Cancer Society. With their help, and that of many well-heeled friends, the next year’s donations were a whopping $4,292,000, with $960,000 desig- nated for research ($72 million and $16 million, respectively, in 2023 dollars). It was a start, but Mary couldn’t fathom why more institutions weren’t involved in seeking a cure for the terrifying and deadly disease. Although they were fab- ulously rich, donating their own money, Albert explained, was not the solution. Rather, the United States government needed to be her target. He tutored her in the delicate nuances of fundraising for political candidates and “friend raising”— cultivating in those same politicians the Laskers’ passion for medical research.

Mary was certainly not a politician, but she saw a clear path to blend Al- bert’s lessons with her charming personality. The result became her ability to nudge the unconvinced, including scientists, doctors, members of Congress, and even presidents. She believed scientific research could save lives, even if the sci- entists didn’t believe it themselves. Some of them would become friends; others would not be able to control their resentment at her success. But Mary truly didn’t care. She was on a mission, creating an entirely new breed of citizen volunteer: the medical research lobbyist.

Joseph Stalin (who would die less than a year after Albert) is credited as having said about war, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of a million is a statistic.” More than 220,000 Americans would die of cancer in 1952. But for Mary Lasker, there was only one tragedy that year. Albert’s death would propel her life’s mission to slay the cancer dragon once and for all, saving mil- lions far into the future.


Finally we have a full length treatment of the indomitable Mary Lasker. In Judith Pearson’s able hands, she comes to life.
Julia Sweig
New York Times best-selling author of LADY BIRD: HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT.

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