The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

Mary Woodard Lasker (1901-1994)

Mary Woodard Lasker, health activist and philanthropist, was born in Watertown, Wisconsin, where as a child she watched her parents and classmates battle fatal diseases. She studied history and art appreciation at the University of Wisconsin and Radcliffe College, from which she graduated cum laude. In 1926, she married Paul Reinhardt, whom she later divorced, and began her career as an art dealer. In 1942, she persuaded advertising executive Albert Davis Lasker (whom she wed two years earlier) to apply his creativity and wealth to public health issues, especially cancer and birth control. The Laskers helped organize the American Cancer Society and convinced RCA president David Sarnoff that "cancer" could be said over the radio, pressured Reader's Digest to publish a series of cancer-related articles, founded the Lasker Foundation to fund medical research and award outstanding scientists, and lobbied Congress and several presidents to create the National Cancer Institute. She responded to her husband's 1956 death from colon cancer by founding the National Health Education Committee and sponsoring the semiannual reports it issued. She also served as secretary of the Birth Control Federation of America and the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau from 1939 to 1942 and as secretary and vice president of Planned Parenthood, the federation's successor. A shrewd lobbyist, Lasker was close to many political leaders, especially Lyndon Johnson, whom she hoped would be the 1960 Democratic nominee and on whose behalf she lobbied ER and New York Post publisher Dorothy Schiff. In 1971, after her "furious lobbying," Congress passed and Richard Nixon signed the National Cancer Act. She received numerous awards for her work, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor. She died at her home in Greenwich, Connecticut, February 2, 1994, from pneumonia.

Sources: Claudia Levy, "Philanthropist Mary Lasker Dies at 93," The Washington Post, 23 February 1994; "The Birth Control Federation of America (1939-1942)" The Margaret Sanger Papers. Internet on-line. Available From

Published by the Model Editions Partnership

Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .

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