Women’s History Month: Mary Lasker and Fran Visco

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Mary Lasker: “If you can’t get it on a three-by-five-inch filing card, you’ve lost the message.”

Great commotion accompanied Mary Lasker’s visits to Capitol Hill.

“Mary and her entourage came down the halls,” Terry Lierman, former Senate staff member, recalled Mrs. Lasker’s 1974 visit to Warren Magnuson (D-WA), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“Everybody was standing at attention and the Senator was getting ready and prepped for it. I had never seen anything like it before.

“You would have thought the Queen of England was coming.”

Besides being regal in manner, Mary Woodard Lasker, who died last week at 93, undertook benevolent projects on a scale fit for royalty:

  • In 1943, Mrs. Lasker and husband, advertising mogul Albert Lasker, launched a campaign that in effect created the American Cancer Society on the foundation of an organization of physicians many of whom were reluctant to take up the cause of cancer research.
  • Having created a mammoth voluntary organization, the Laskers forced into lobbying for increasing federal funding of research. This led to an unprecedented boost in funding of National Institutes of Health. Subsequently, Mrs. Lasker’s lobbying led to the enactment of the 1971 National Cancer Act and subsequent increases in funding for the cancer program.
  • The Laskers also established an award whose recipients frequently go on to win the Nobel Prize. Altogether, 51 scientists who won the Lasker award became Nobel laureates.

Mrs. Lasker realized that scientists and the government needed to work together and that prodding was required to force them into a partnership. Initially, many of the physicians who belonged to the precursor of ACS, the American Society for the Control of Cancer, were opposed to committing the society’s funds to research as well as to lobbying the government to underwrite biomedical research.

However, with the Laskers’ involvement, the society’s budget climbed from $356,000 in 1943 to $10 million three years later. Opposition dwindled. Later, the Laskers’ lobbying contributed to an exponential growth of the federal government’s research spending. In 1945, the US Public Health Service spent $2.4 million on research. In 1960, research spending was $400 million.

“Mary used to say, ‘You can get more money out of the government in one day than you can get by going door-to-door for ten years,’” recalls Helene Brown, a long-time friend of Lasker’s.

Cancer Program Advocate Mary Lasker, 93, Prodded Government, Scientists For Cures
TCL Archives | March 4, 1994

Fran Visco: “We will no longer be passive. We will no longer be polite.”

Taking the stand before Senate Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Subcommittee in August 1992, Fran Visco, a Philadelphia trial lawyer, breast cancer survivor, and president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, changed the face of cancer advocacy with her now-famous “Men in suits” speech.

In a 1992 interview about the speech, Visco said, “From AIDS activists we learned what would happen when you open your mouth and make demands. That’s where we are now, and that seems to be what the people in power respond to. We are grateful to AIDS activists for showing this to us.”

Read the speech:

When the men in suits all but destroyed the savings and loan system in this country, the nation’s economic stability was threatened and this Congress responded with billions of dollars.

Because our cities are in danger of extinction, this Congress has found a way to appropriate emergency funds for the urban crisis.

When this administration decided to wage a war, you found $7.5 billion to fund it.

Women have declared war on breast cancer and you had better find a way to fund that war.

Women refuse to fight with other diseases for which no funds are available. That would be going by existing rules, and too many women die under those rules.

It is not enough that we can all say breast cancer aloud. And it is not enough to say you want to help us.

We will no longer be passive. We will no longer be polite. We can no longer afford to wait while Congress gets around to significant, decent funding for breast cancer.

We implore you: you must find a way to appropriate the additional $300 million for breast cancer research now. We can accept no less.

Breast Cancer Coalition to Congress: ‘Find a Way To Fund The War,’ Bypass Level Is Not Enough
TCL Archives | August 7, 1992

Recent contributions

Primary sources

This column features the latest posts to the Cancer History Project by our growing list of contributors.

The Cancer History Project is a free, web-based, collaborative resource intended to mark the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act and designed to continue in perpetuity. The objective is to assemble a robust collection of historical documents and make them freely available.

Access to the Cancer History Project is open to the public at CancerHistoryProject.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at @CancerHistProj.

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