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Papers of Medical Philanthropist and NIH Benefactor Mary Lasker Added to the National Library of Medicine’s Profiles in Science Web Site

The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, announces the release of an extensive selection from the papers of Mary Lasker (1899–1994), a noted patron of science, medical research advocate, and health promoter, on the Library’s Profiles in Science Web site.

With this addition, the number of prominent researchers, public health officials, and promoters of medical research whose personal and professional records are presented on Profiles has grown to twenty-two. The site is at http://profiles.nlm.nih.gov.
“In the decades after World War II, Lasker acted as a catalyst for the growth of the world’s largest and most successful biomedical research enterprise, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) as its centerpiece,” said Donald A.B. Lindberg, M.D., director of the National Library of Medicine.

Called “this country’s First Lady of science and medicine” by former National Cancer Institute director Vincent T. DaVita, Lasker was a well-connected fundraiser and astute advocate who through charm, energy, and skillful use of the media persuaded donors, congressmen, and presidents to provide greatly increased funds for biomedical research. “I’m infuriated when I hear that anyone’s ill, especially when it’s from a disease that virtually nothing is known about,” she explained.

Lasker was driven by an unshakeable belief that the nation’s postwar wealth could be mobilized to unravel scientific mysteries and find cures for even the most intractable diseases. “You can solve any problem if you have money, people, and equipment,” was her mantra. She developed a compelling political rationale for federal sponsorship of medical research, built a powerful lobby that won large research appropriations, and pushed NIH into new scientific directions, at times in opposition to scientists.

Her Wisconsin childhood, though otherwise placid, was scarred by disease. She herself suffered from painful ear infections as a child and had to interrupt her undergraduate studies when stricken in the influenza pandemic of 1918. The absence of medical remedies against these conditions left her “deeply resentful” at an early age, she remembered, and would later fuel her advocacy of medical research and drug development.

With her husband, the wealthy advertising pioneer Albert Lasker (1880–1952), she established the Lasker Foundation in 1942 to promote medical research. The Foundation created America’s most prestigious prizes in biomedical research. More than seventy Lasker Award winners have become Nobel Laureates.

Lasker led the reorganization of the American Cancer Society as a modern fundraising and lobbying organization powerful enough to persuade Congress to boost appropriations for cancer research. She was an early supporter of cancer chemotherapy, and urged scientists to apply their research findings to drug development more quickly. She lobbied for the establishment of the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute) and the National Institute of Mental Health, and secured a place for the lay public on NIH scientific advisory boards, a role she often filled herself. Congressional leaders relied on the expert witnesses she presented to justify large increases in the NIH budget year after year.

Asked about her own scientific talent, Lasker averred that “nobody would have me in their laboratory for five minutes. I couldn’t cut up a frog, and I certainly couldn’t perform surgery. I’m better at making it possible for other people.”

Her political influence diminished after she helped launch the War on Cancer in the early 1970s, a controversial measure that raised unrealistic public expectations of impending breakthroughs in cancer treatment. Nevertheless, she continued to serve as the “Fairy Godmother of Medical Research,” in the words of Business Week, raising money for research on hypertension, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, and AIDS until her death in 1994.

The online exhibition features correspondence, newspaper accounts, and photographs from the Mary Lasker papers at Columbia University Libraries. Visitors to the site can view, for example, an extensive exchange of letters with her confidante and fellow advocate, Florence Mahoney, a note of tribute from Salvador Dali with a drawing in his hand, and a photo of her at a tree planting ceremony with New York City Mayor Robert Wagner that captures her interest in urban beautification.

Located in Bethesda, Maryland, the National Library of Medicine is the world’s largest library of the health sciences. For more information, visit the Web site at http://www.nlm.nih.gov.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)—The Nation’s Medical Research Agency—includes 27 institutes and centers, and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research, and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH, and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

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