The Modern Disease


From The New Yorker:

The story of cancer as a distinctively modern—and even specifically American—entity starts with the marriage, in 1940, of Albert Lasker, a wealthy and well-connected advertising executive whose accounts included Lucky Strike cigarettes, and Mary Woodard, a dress designer and Radcliffe graduate, who had social aspirations. Mary Lasker needed a philanthropic cause, and found one in harnessing the tremendous power of medical research to cure all manner of disease. Her husband was soon converted to Mary’s vision and urged her to think very big. “There are unlimited funds,” he said. “I will show you how to get them.”

The big, new idea was to unleash these funds not just through charitable giving but through political action. By the time that Albert died, horribly, of colon cancer, in 1952, Mary Lasker and her supporters (by then known as the Laskerites) had begun to develop a focussed target and a strategy: cancer was the enemy, and Washington was to be the battlefield. “You were probably the first person to realize that the War against Cancer has to be fought first on the floor of Congress,” the breast-cancer activist Rose Kushner later wrote to Lasker, and the military language stuck. This was a colossal fight, needing huge amounts of money, and engaging the enemy through overwhelming force.

If medical research was to be the weapon, the Laskerites needed a medical researcher to give the campaign credibility and to identify strategic targets. When Lasker met the cancer researcher Sidney Farber, in Washington in the late nineteen-forties, it was, Mukherjee writes, “like the meeting of two stranded travelers, each carrying one-half of a map.” In 1947, working at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, Farber had had striking success in treating child-leukemia patients with a group of chemicals known as folic-acid antagonists. Cancers were understood to be malignant neoplasms, caused by uncontrollably dividing cells, and Farber was looking for substances that could target and check that division. There had been recent signs that the chemical-warfare agent nitrogen mustard could do this with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and now it seemed that antifolates could be effective with certain cancers of the blood. Farber’s success was limited, but, given the current state of cancer therapy, it was stunning. He was getting significant remissions through systemic intervention. It was the origin of modern chemotherapy.

In Farber, Lasker found her field commander: she capitalized on his expertise and authority, and she eventually lifted his sights from voluntary fund-raising to political action. Working together for two decades, the pair learned how to mobilize, organize, and focus scientific and technological assets. By 1970, as the Vietnam War ate away at the nation’s soul and resources, Richard Nixon came to think that a Presidentially promoted War on Cancer could be much more popular and more likely to end in unambiguous victory. It could be another Manhattan Project or Apollo.

“Cancer World: The making of a modern disease”, Steven Shapin, The New Yorker