If you ask scientists or clinical investigators about the Lasker Award, they will respond with alacrity: “I want it.” But ask them about Mary and Albert Lasker, and they draw a blank. The origins of this coveted award, known as the “American Nobel” and regarded as second only to its Swedish counterpart in medicine, is obscured by its dazzle. Few who desire it, or have received it, know its genesis.

It’s a tale of two people rising to the demands of a pivotal moment that others had failed to seize. With seed money, imagination, and indomitable will, Mary and Albert Lasker set out to change the course of medical history when hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, many wounded, were returning home from World War II. Espousing a two-pronged approach, they established a small private foundation to support innovative research and used its intellectual capital to persuade those with power to transform their vision into a national network of institutes. It was a private-public partnership, unprecedented in its reach and impact.

The story begins with Albert Davis Lasker, whose life is a classic American rags-to-riches saga about a youth driven by ambition, undaunted by circumstance and personal frailty, who grasped the golden ring of success, only to find that he had bartered his soul.

Albert was born in 1880 and raised in the then-backwater town of Galveston, Texas. His father, Morris Lasker, a punitive and dominating man, was a German Jewish refugee who had earned wealth and prominence by riding the coattails of the Civil War railways, converting his local flour mill into a national commodity.

It was clear to Albert, even as a child, that he must conform to his father’s wishes or leave home. At 12, Albert started a newspaper; at 16, he quit school; and, after a stint reporting for small southern newspapers, he was ready to trade its drudgery for big-league journalism. Albert set his sights on Chicago, the nexus of east and west, where industry boomed and newspapers were platforms of power. Confident but penniless, he needed to persuade his father to pay his way.

Morris Lasker, declaring journalism a stain on the family name, offered Albert a deal. He would secure his son a job in advertising, an “honest” profession, and perhaps, in time, reconsider. It was a small victory, but a ticket out. Certain that he could beat his father at the game, Albert vowed never to return.

In a twist that neither father nor son could have foreseen, advertising sales became Albert’s career—indeed, he revolutionized the industry. Focusing on the needs and aspirations of the consumer rather than on the manufacturer’s bottom line, Albert turned the advertising business on its head, earning his agency millions by spinning ordinary products into household names. At 26, he became the sole owner of one of the largest and most lucrative advertising firms in the nation, Lord & Thomas.

Albert’s first wife, Flora Warner, an athletic beauty, contracted a degenerative muscular disease, which relegated her to a wheelchair for most of her life. Following Flora’s death in 1936, a grieving Albert succumbed to the charms of a Hollywood starlet, but their union did not outlast their honeymoon.

Mary Woodward, the third Mrs. Lasker, was another kind of woman. She was also of another generation: unlike Albert’s first two wives, Mary had come of age when women could vote and speak their minds in public. Yet, much like Albert’s, her childhood was governed by status and convention.

Mary was born in 1900, daughter of a wealthy banker who reigned over his family with icy dominion and kept her “activist” mother on a tight Victorian leash. Of Puritan stock, the family lived in modest style among Yankee farmers and cultured German émigrés in the small town of Watertown, Wisconsin. Straitlaced and conventional, her parents taught Mary that women were meant to be wives and mothers. Yet even as a child, Mary, like her mother, had an impulse for reform.

Growing up before the advent of antibiotics and clinical therapies for common diseases, Mary endured incessant ear infections thought to be life-threatening. She watched her relatives struggle with arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. Medical practice in the early decades of the twentieth century was shallow and crude; survival beyond middle age appeared to be a matter of luck.

Setting thoughts of public service aside to please her parents, Mary studied art history, initially attending the University of Wisconsin but graduating from Radcliffe summa cum laude in 1923. Leaving Cambridge for New York City, she found a job as the assistant to the owner of a fashionable art gallery. Three years later, she married him. But even as the couple became a force in the pre–Great Depression art boom, their relationship unraveled. Despite Mary’s efforts to help him, her alcoholic husband remained incorrigible.

Filing for divorce in 1934, Mary knew that her financial survival demanded turning necessity into profit. In the mid-1930s, as women traded designer fashion for home-sewn dresses, she created inexpensive dress patterns, persuading Condé Nast to market them under its Vogue Patterns label. Using business skills honed in the art world and an eye for line and color cultivated at Radcliffe, she carved a path to financial independence.

Mary met Albert in 1939 at a business luncheon in New York. He was a gray-templed, well-dressed, and worldly man of 59, and she a raven-haired beauty, 20 years his junior. The chance meeting of this unlikely pair, one a first-generation American and the other with roots going back to the Mayflower, revealed a kinship that took them by surprise. Despite their differences in age, ethnicity, and religion, they were much alike: rebellious teens who had cut the ties of Victorian restraint, innate risk-takers who thrived on challenge, and seasoned entrepreneurs.

A month into their courtship, however, Albert fell into a deep depression; he had inherited his father’s business instincts along with his cruel and erratic bursts of anger. He had endured this nameless curse in silence for 40 years, a prisoner of its bursts of creativity and descents into despair. His only sustenance was his will to succeed.

Albert’s desperation became Mary’s clarion call. She persuaded him to see a neurologist and eventually a psychiatrist. No biologic therapies existed then to ameliorate his symptoms, now known as bipolar disease, but Albert learned that his breakdowns were not his fault. This knowledge alone was a long-sought reprieve. Albert’s struggle, and Mary’s memories of her own family’s suffering, reignited her desire to invest in medical research. Her marriage to Albert in 1940 would provide her with the means.

Albert Lasker revolutionized the advertising industry by focusing on the needs of the consumer, which earned him a fortune. (BETTMANN/GETTY IMAGES)

Shortly after they married, Albert sold the large estate he had shared with Flora in suburban Chicago and, almost simultaneously, his business. Now 60 years old, he believed that he had made his mark. Specialization within the advertising industry, he said, rendered his top-down leadership old-fashioned.

Thanks to Albert’s sell-offs, the Laskers accrued the hefty sum of $45 million (equivalent to $990 million in 2023 dollars). Convinced by Mary’s resolve, Albert agreed to invest half their profits in a foundation dedicated to supporting scientific research. The organization, named after the couple, began offering awards of $15,000 in 1946 (equivalent to $253,000 in 2023). But when Mary proposed lobbying Congress to fund a national research network, Albert bowed out. He had given her the seed money as well as his connections, but politics was a blood sport he felt he was too old to play.

Plunging into the postwar vortex of public-policy reform, Mary believed that she had reason for optimism. In fact, it was her timing that gave her a fighting chance. Historically, social necessities in the aftermath of war often require federal intervention—wartime departments are dissolved and essential services redefined. Albert had learned this firsthand. As chairman of the Maritime War Board after World War I, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a federal subsidy for the Merchant Marine, considered essential to national security.

A generation later, in the wake of another world war, nearly 700,000 wounded American soldiers were returning home—more than three times the number who came back after World War I—to find a health-care system inadequate to their needs.

Before World War I, even within the finest and best-endowed universities, scientific research was not a priority. Without government or donor pressure, pathologists were compelled to treat the symptoms of disease; the underlying causes were beyond their scope. The first philanthropist to recognize the need for medical research in service of the working and immigrant poor was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., president of the Standard Oil Company. In 1906, long before the Laskers entered the arena, he had begun investing millions of dollars of his fortune in the first nonprofit entirely devoted to research. The Rockefeller Institute in New York changed the strategy of private medical institutions by making basic science its highest priority, housing a small hospital for clinical testing. The institute would serve as a model for universities and medical schools, which gradually incorporated research into their curricula. Though these new institutions represented a breakthrough in private philanthropy, they could not accommodate the requirements of the diverse and burgeoning postwar populace.

As the war ended, the military arm of the nation’s health-care system, the Public Health Service, began winding down. Commissioned in the late nineteenth century to serve the needs of the military, it was expanded and renamed the National Institute of Health in 1930, but it took seven years for Congress to authorize its first research grants. Outmoded and ill-equipped, the PHS functioned by default until 1944, when the Public Health Service Act formally consolidated its authority with that of the NIH. Even then, however, its mission was inchoate, leaving physicians underfunded and unsupervised.

In 1944, the NIH consisted of one division, the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It was wide-ranging in scope but lacked sufficient funds. Restricted by law to allocate no more than 10 percent of its $700,000 budget to external research grants, the NCI’s national impact was minimal.

While it became clear to Mary that the funding, oversight, and reach of the scientific research was inadequate, it was just as clear that she could not penetrate its hermetically sealed infrastructure on her own. During one of the Laskers’ trips to Miami to mitigate Albert’s depression, Mary met a woman who would become her partner in reform: Florence Mahoney, wife of Daniel Mahoney, manager of the southeastern holdings of Cox Newspapers, then the nation’s largest media conglomerate. In many ways, they were a perfect team. Florence understood politics and medicine and had relationships with governors and legislators. Together, the two women had their hands on one of the most powerful weapons against government inertia: the press.

Mary and Florence soon established a modus operandi. Their first target in Washington was Senator Claude Pepper, a 36-year-old Democrat from Florida. Pepper chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Wartime Health and Education, which funded the Office of Medical Research (OMR). Pepper, they knew, could influence the Senate, and they could help him by financing his reelection campaign in the fall of 1944. Initially motivated by self-interest, Pepper was readily convinced that funding for medical research was a high priority. He scheduled hearings that included the medical experts within the Laskers’ network, in order to boost the credibility of his effort.

As Pepper’s draft of the National Medical Research Bill moved to the Senate floor in 1946, the inaugural year of the Lasker Awards, the foundation’s grants supported research in diabetes, syphilis, anemia, yellow fever, and malaria—reflecting the needs of homecoming soldiers. The bill passed in the Senate, scoring the team’s first legislative victory and opening applications for funding to investigators in all medical disciplines.

Mary and Florence then tackled another arm of private philanthropy: nongovernment organizations. First up was the American Society for the Control of Cancer, for which Albert and his first wife, Flora, had created an endowment in 1920. After more than 20 years of neglect, however, the society was mired in old protocols. It was producing thousands of annual pamphlets on the “danger signs” of cancer but lacked the drive and skill to raise money for research. The Laskers agreed to underwrite a fund-raising campaign on one condition: the society would agree to put 25 percent of the proceeds directly into cancer research. Counseled by Albert, Mary changed its name to the American Cancer Society.

The money poured in. By the end of the summer of 1945, the campaign had raised just under $4.3 million, of which $960,000 went directly toward research. The ACS, still thriving today, supported researchers whose breakthrough discoveries in basic and clinical science across all types and aspects of cancer would earn international recognition. Once again using their private funds as seed money, Albert and Mary had raised $890,000 more than the federal government could allocate by law. Moreover, the ACS served as a laboratory in which they honed their skills as marketers and fund-raisers.

Simultaneously, another NGO, of which Mary and Florence were members, was sliding toward irrelevance. In 1945, the National Committee for Mental Hygiene was the only nationwide voluntary mental-health organization. Like the American Society for the Control of Cancer, it lacked organizational and fund-raising skills. Mary persuaded the committee’s head to promote the idea of a “national mental-health institute” to the nascent NIH. She and Florence harnessed the media to stir public support and conscripted a congressman to press the NIH for a proposal.

This time, however, Mary and Florence encountered a new adversary: ideology. Psychoanalysis had become so deeply rooted as the standard of care among psychiatrists that the mere suggestion that some types of mental disorders had biochemical causes seemed practically blasphemous. Mary persuaded the research director at Rockland State Hospital in New York, physician Nathan Kline, to launch a study in which a new tranquilizer, Thorazine, was administered to his 8,000 patients. The study proved the drug’s efficacy, leading to the development of a new generation of tranquilizers and antidepressants that made possible the treatment of patients once deemed hopeless. Kline, along with several colleagues, received a Lasker Award for scientific research in 1957.

Yet even in the face of irrefutable evidence, the psychiatric establishment stood its ground, refusing to administer drug therapy. Mary enlisted William Menninger—a family friend, surgeon general during World War II, and Lasker awardee—to argue her case, and secured a meeting for Menninger and herself with Robert Felix, director of PHS’s mental-hygiene division. The results of Kline’s study and Menninger’s knowledge of the bio-psychodynamics of mental illness proved pivotal in persuading Felix to set up a psychopharmacology testing center within the division. Over the next several years, as data confirming the effectiveness of drug therapies grew, Felix would become an advocate for the use of psychoactive drugs.

The efforts of Mary and Florence culminated in the National Mental Health Act, authorizing a National Institute of Mental Health, signed into law in 1946 by President Harry Truman, who declared the two women “crusaders.” It was the first major piece of federal mental-health legislation in almost 100 years. And it marked an extraordinary victory, the first time that they had marshaled their fleet of “disrupter” congressmen, Lasker scientists, and the media to effect legislation. In 1948, using the same strategy, Mary and Florence helped turn the National Heart Act into law.

Sadly, in 1952, just as breakthrough drug therapies for cancer, mental illness, and neurological disease were emerging, Albert died at 72 of colon cancer. The irony of Albert losing his battle with cancer just as the research he had supported was bearing fruit inspired Mary to continue their work. Her partnership with Florence and their team became even more vital. A move to Washington, D.C., in 1950 allowed Florence to bring her knowledge of legislative procedure and medicine and her extraordinary social skills into play. She formed a salon, hosting scientists, government officials, and heads of NGOs sympathetic to reform.

Working in tandem, Mary and Florence expanded their influence in a Washington dominated by the Democratic Party. The continuity of Democratic power was crucial to their efforts, since small-government Republicans opposed the funding of federal social programs. But that was about to change.

By the mid-1950s, Mary and Florence were beginning to see the impact of their work. The Senate passed a bill in 1956, signed by President Dwight Eisenhower, allocating $23 million to the NIH, distributed among the five institutes that they had helped establish: Cancer, Heart, Mental Illness, Neurological Diseases and Blindness, and Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That same year, a Republican senator, Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, proposed a bill allocating $1 billion for federal research over a five-year period. The bill didn’t pass, but the proposal convinced her fellow Republicans of the need for more funding.

Mary and Florence cultivated another lever of power hidden in the confines of the Oval Office. President Truman had suffered from cardiac asthma, known today as edema of the lung. Knowledge of his illness pressured Congress to fund cardiopulmonary research. In 1955, President Eisenhower suffered a massive heart attack. White House physicians hid the news from the public, but after the press got hold of it, Eisenhower’s illness persuaded the NIH to expand funding of cardiovascular research. Mary called it the “most lifesaving heart attack that came to anyone.”

Later, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy, motivated by the mental retardation of his sister Rosemary, called for the establishment of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Mary’s friendship with the Kennedy family proved critical in solidifying the president’s support.

With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, Mary and Florence conscripted the first Republican president to their cause. Nixon authorized the establishment of the National Eye Institute. In 1971, he also pushed Congress to pass the National Cancer Act, appropriating $100 million for cancer research and initiating a “war on cancer.” In 1974, before resigning from office, Nixon signed a law authorizing a National Institute for Research on Aging—the culmination of eight years of lobbying by Florence Mahoney.

Epidemiologist Fred Soper won the Lasker Award in 1946 for his work organizing successful campaigns to fight yellow fever and malaria. (UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE/UIG/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES)

By the late 1960s, Mary Lasker’s energy had begun to wane. Her contacts in the House and Senate had either died or retired. Without their help, funding for basic and clinical research fell by tens of millions of dollars.

Despite Mary’s loss of influence, her efforts to promote research for diseases that plagued the American public—cancer, heart disease, and blindness—continued. In 1972, she lobbied for the creation of a national program for high-blood-pressure education to inform both physicians and laypeople of the dangers of this “silent killer.” Under the direction of the National Heart Institute, her effort raised $120 million in federal grants for state and local programs. She initiated a similar push to address glaucoma, the leading cause of blindness in the United States.

During the 1980s, despite suffering a series of strokes, Mary raised money for research on AIDS, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, and growth disorders. As she approached the end of her active life, she nevertheless felt like a failure. “I did something wrong—or didn’t do enough of the right things,” she concluded. She feared that the research she helped fund had not touched the lives of enough people. Thwarted by rigid FDA standards and partisan politics, most of it had not translated into clinical therapies.

In truth, she had been a leader at a critical moment, when postwar health care was in dire need of secure funding. Mary had used every tool, private and public, to bring about change, despite bureaucratic resistance and entrenched power. She proved as determined to succeed as her husband. She challenged the scientific establishment head-on, hit at the heart of its financial resources in the House and Senate, harnessed a massive network in the medical community, unleashed executive power, and employed the media to educate the public.

Congress recognized Mary’s efforts to reform and expand the breadth of federal research in 1984 by establishing the Mary Lasker Center for Health Research and Education. In 1989, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. She died in 1994.

In many ways, Mary Lasker was ahead of her time. Today, notions of “compassionate care” prevail, alongside experimental protocols for those who fail to prosper with conventional therapy. And technological advances have combined with genetic research to inform the treatment of diseases once thought irremediable.

We should honor the contributions of Lasker awardees whose names we no longer remember, such as Max Theiler (vaccine for yellow fever); Thomas Francis, Jr. (flu vaccine); Selman Waksman and René Dubos (streptomycin); Robert Wilkins (first effective drugs for hypertension); Fred Soper (organizing successful campaigns against yellow fever and malaria); and Philip Hench and Edward Kendall (cortisone). They join those whose names or achievements are better known: Jonas Salk (polio vaccine); Florence Sabin (oral polio vaccine); Michael DeBakey (artificial heart valves); George Papanicolaou (pap smear); Robert G. Edwards (in vitro fertilization); Akira Endo (statins); Max Cooper and Jacques Miller (research on B and T cells and the organizing principles of the adaptive immune system); Elizabeth Blackburn (discovery of telomeres, which protect chromosomes from disintegration and factor into cell aging); and William Kaelin (the function of cell oxygen in a signaling scheme, which may lead to therapies for disorders including cancer, cardiovascular disease, anemia, and macular degeneration). These are just some of the hundreds who benefited from the Laskers’ philanthropy.

Consider, too, the 2021 awardees, Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman (modified mRNA vaccines), whose two-decade struggle without funding to find a nontoxic form of mRNA not only helped to mitigate the Covid-19 pandemic but also initiated research into using mRNA and its derivatives to ameliorate cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

In the nearly 30 years since Mary’s death, the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation has become a multifaceted institution that supports the achievements of young as well as proven scientists and clinicians. Between 1991 and 2021, 15 recipients of the Lasker Prize went on to receive the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. The foundation had recognized these researchers six years earlier, on average, establishing its prescience.

Decades of Lasker awardees and Nobel Prize winners, a national network of institutions that changed the course of scientific research in America, and the ongoing education of citizens to fight for access to innovative medical treatment: Mary and Albert Lasker leave an enduring legacy, spawned by a prize that has moved a nation.

Top Photo: Mary Lasker’s tireless philanthropy funded vast efforts in medical research. (PICTORIAL PARADE/ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES)


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