Lasker Awards Recall a Seminal Figure in Health Philanthropy and Activism

The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundationa venerable American philanthropic organization, founded way back in 1942recently announced the winners of the 2015 Lasker Awards for medical research and public health. Though the award may not exactly be a household name, it's among the most prestigious for medical research and public health service. We'll list the winners below, but perhaps more interesting is the story of Mary Lasker herself, who played a seminal role in American public health and the development of modern health philanthropy.

Born in 1901, Mary Woodard Lasker was a leading public health activist by the late 1930s. She was a proponent of medical research and birth control, serving as an officer of the Birth Control Federation of Americaknown these days as Planned Parenthood. In the early 1940s, Lasker was newly married to her second husband, advertising executive Albert Lasker. The couple helped start up the American Cancer Society, and together created their namesake foundation to further drive and support medical research. (It was only fair: Albert Lasker's agency repped Lucky Strike cigarettes.)

At the time, health philanthropy was still a nascent field. Recently, I wrote about another pioneering early foundation in this space, the Elsa U. Pardee Foundation, which was established just two years after the Lasker Foundation. For context, both these foundations were started over two decades before the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation arrived on the scene. 

Related: A Pioneer in Philanthropy's Fight Against Cancer Is Still Going Strong after 70 Years

In addition to thinking creatively about philanthropy, Mary realized how important Albert's skills in advertising and communication would be in the public health sphere as mass media developed during the mid-20th centuryat a time when health matters simply weren't discussed in polite company. She was reportedly instrumental in convincing radio executives that the word "cancer" could be uttered on the air, and worked with editors of Reader's Digest to run articles about cancer. Nowadays, of course, we're inundated with health information, thanks in no small part to Lasker.

Lasker was also a canny political player, and lobbied congress and several presidents to invest in the nation's health. Her efforts drove the National Cancer Act and created the National Cancer Institute, and influenced increased government funding for medical research, which led to creation of several NIH institutes. 

Lasker died in 1994, and of course, her causes are no remnant of the past. As we see in the debate swirling around Planned Parenthood, the battles about women's health and access to birth control services that Lasker pioneered decades ago are still very much in play.

The Lasker Awards, now in their 70th year, recognize scientists, physicians and public servants who have made major advances in medical research and health care. Each award carries an honorarium of $250,000. Many Lasker awardees have gone on to win Nobel prizes.

The 2015 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award was given to Evelyn M. Witkin of Rutgers University and Stephen J. Elledge of Brigham and Women's Hospital, for research that illuminated the fundamentals of the DNA-damage response—a mechanism that protects the genome of all living organisms.

The 2015 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award went to James P. Allison of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, for the discovery and development of a monoclonal antibody therapy that unleashes the immune system to combat cancer.

The 2015 Lasker-Bloomberg Public Service Award was presented to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, for leadership in response to the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and for their sustained and effective responses to health emergencies around the globe.