University of Minnesota

Mary Lasker on the National Heart Act

[ed. This is the story of the passage of the National Heart Act and the creation of the National Heart Institute as recounted by Mary Lasker.]

Mary Lasker: In order to get some citizens’ support to the idea of a National Heart Institute, Emerson Foote and Albert and I formed a committee called the National Heart Committee and we asked to be the chairman of it. This was in order to have our letterhead and get people to write and wire to their Congressmen and show interest in the need of such a bill.

Q: What was the date of that?

Lasker: Well, we organized that in about December of ’47 or January of ’48. I decided that some of the funds that I had intended to help the American Heart Association with in order to finance their campaign for funds I would hold back and help finance the passage of this bill, and the Committee was established for that purpose. . . . .

Florence Mahoney and I went to Washington in January of ’48 and I went to see Congressman Kieth of Wisconsin who was the chairman of the subcommittee on appropriations that had to do with the appropriations for the U.S. Public Health Service. I explained to him that we needed research in the field of heart and I happened, by chance, to have a letter–really not by chance–from the head of Kimberly Clark, a man called Stansebrenner, who was the leading businessman in the district from which Mr. Frank Kieth came.

Q: You had learned that that sort of thing was important.

Lasker: Well, naturally. This was indeed surprising to Mr. Kieth and the combination of the fact that he thought what I said made sense and the fact that Mr. S was a friend, did me no harm, and Kieth agreed to sponsor a little national heart bill similar to the one that Pepper, Bridges, Murray and Ives were going to sponsor in the Senate. We persuaded Kieth to sponsor in the House.

Q: What happened to Javits?

Lasker: Well, Javits bill was a little different and Javits had no influence. Kieth had influence, because he, if we passed the bill, would have to do with the money and we weren’t interested in passing legislation unless we were going to get money.

Florence got George Smathers, who was then a minor Congressman from Florida, to be one of the sponsors in the House. In other words, Kieth and Smathers each put in the same bill in the House, the heart bill, and Pepper, Murray and Bridges in the Senate we persuaded, and Anna Roseberg got Senator Ives.

The administrative provisions of the bill suited Parran Sheely and Ewing. Ewing didn’t want to have an advisory committee to have any power, however, wanted it to be purely advisory. Ewing, for instance, had had difficulty with getting the National Health Institutes Advisory Council to make a grant to get Dr. Kempner for his rice-diet experiments in hypertension at Duke, and he was very frustrated by the run-around that he had been given by Dr. Parran, who claimed that he couldn’t make a grant to Dr. Kempner unless it was agreed to by the Advisory Council.

Actually, both Parran and the Advisory Council were wrong as far as Kempner went and Kempner was right. The rice diet was, indeed, proved by others to lower blood pressure but it was a very rigorous way to lower blood pressure and, fortunately, as a result of the money we got in the Heart Institute we financed new drugs which lowered it more easily, although not 100 percent effective.

We did, however, get the same provisions about the Advisory Council having the powers that Parran said prevented him from giving the Kempner grant, and it was very fortunate that we did because it’s the only thing that gives outsiders any real say over the administration of federal funds.

Javits came along and also introduced a bill similar to the one we got Kieth to introduce and also Wolverton, who was the chairman, a very respectable Republican, of the committee that would hear the bill. After this was accomplished Anna Rosenberg and I sent out wires to our various friends, including Bill Donovan and Mrs. Wendell Willkie. No, wait, I sent out wires signed by Anna, Bill Donovan, Mrs. Willkie and Emerson Foote to 75 leading/citizens, plus some key doctors in the American Heart Association, asking them to join us in support of the bill. Emerson wrote the wire, and it got about 90 percent acceptance. Pretty good, isn’t it?

Q: Yes, I would say so.

Lasker: The next problem was how to get hearings for the bill, because the Republicans were in control of the subcommittees in Congress. Alexander Smith of New Jersey was the one that would have to hear it in the Senate, and I didn’t know him. And Wolverton of New Jersey was in control of the House hearings. We mobilized our Heart Committee to write and wire the members of the full committees and subcommittees repeatedly during the next five and a half months.

On the 10th of February Albert and I went to the West Coast and after much difficulty and anxiety the Senate subcommittee finally held hearings on the heart bill in March or early April in which both Emerson Foote and General “Wild Bill” Donovan and others testified at my earnest urging.

Q: Did you resort in this instance also to ads in the newspapers?

No, no we didn’t. I don’t recall that we did.

Albert and I returned on about the 15th of April and naturally a great many telephone calls had gone on between New York, Washington and the Coast, in the meantime. And Wilburton had been persuaded to hold the hearings in the House around the first week in May. I testified. It was one of the last/times I testified in either the House or the Senate, because I found I could get other people to do it better.

Q: Do you find that a pleasant exercise?

Lasker: No, not at all. I find that other people can do it much better and I don’t need to, and besides, the Congressmen and Senators like to hear from doctors because they think they may get a little free advice.

One time a Senator had a long conversation with one of the doctors about the health of his dog!

Q: Do you feel that sometimes they felt perhaps that this wasn’t a woman’s role, to be. . .

Lasker: Well, I don’t think so. I don’t think the Congressmen and Senators on the whole have any great hostility towards me as a woman. I think doctors felt that more. The Congressmen and Senators were concerned with very large affairs and this was just one thing, and they thought perhaps I might be right, it sounded so sensible, and nobody else was doing much about it. And many of them were very agreeable about it, especially, as you know, that I was a good friend of Pepper and Murray and some of the others.

Anyway, at this first hearing in the House, James Adams, Mrs. Wendell Willkie, Dr. Robert Levy of Columbia, Dr. Rappleye and Dr. T. Duckett Jones, and Dr. Tinsley Harrison testified. I was deeply moved by the hearing. I felt it was the beginning of something very important, and I was really very emotionally moved about the testimony of that day.

Wilberton and Percy Priest seemed particularly sympathetic and Wilberton made a warm speech at the end thanking us. I didn’t realize that this was quite common on the part of Congressmen and Senators.

Q: Were you cross-examined at all in your testimony?

Lasker: No. I gave a lot of facts and figures and they weren’t in a position to refute them.

After this, I went to see Senator Pepper in the Senate and asked him, begged him to try to get the heart bill referred out of the Senate subcommittee. He went on the floor–I think he was a member of the subcommittee, but I’m not sure, and anyway, he was friendly with the people on it and he was very energetic–and he gathered the members of the subcommittee together in the cloak room and they voted to report the bill out then and there to the full committee, just like that. The full committee finally reported it, and the heart institute bill was passed by the Senate on the consent calendar shortly thereafter–I think it was in May, ’48.

The House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee, which is where the bill was, was very pressed with work, but I had interested Jack Cheeter of the American Cancer Society, who was working for the American Cancer Society on the bill, and he had worked for Vannevar Bush and he had also been a staff member on one of Pepper’s committees, so he took the bother to write the House committee’s report on the hearings. Of course, they never have staff enough and nobody has any time to do the work and Cheeter very kindly did the report for the committee.

The full committee reported it about June 1st.

Then came the matter of getting a roll call on the House calendar. I never realized that such horrors could exist, that there could be such complications on the House side, because in the mental health bill that we’d been concerned with Percy Priest had done the work on the House bill. Here we were with the work on both sides, and it looked like a maze.

Q: Who was chairman of the Rules? Leo Howland at that time?

Lasker: Yes, he was indeed.

It was almost impossible to get a rule as the Congress was determined to adjourn because the political conventions were coming up shortly, the end of June of ’48. However, as my husband was a well-known Republican in Illinois and was friendly with the Republican National Committeeman in Illinois, Werner Schraeder, he telephoned to him on June 5th, and when my husband telephones to someone and really asks for a favor, they felt such a charge of dynamic energy and they act immediately. He telephoned Leo Allen, Chairman of the Rules Committee asking him to give a rule at once for the bill. Allen did, and the bill passed the next day, with only the objection of Scribner of Kansas, who complained that it would cost money.

We heard this delightful fact when we were lunching with Mr. James Conant, President of Harvard, at Harvard that pleasant June day. He was consulting my husband about how to get more money for medical education.

Scribner complained that it would cost money. Kieth jumped to the defense of the bill because, as it was on the consent calendar, one complaint could throw it off the calendar. And in order to defend the bill he said, “No more money would be appropriated in this session,” which of course was to me terrible, but he saved the bill.

About a million two hundred thousand was in the Appropriations bill to be allocated to the National Heart Institute from the Institutes of Health, actually in the budget, fortunately. When Scribner heard from Kieth that it would cost no more money in that session, Scribner withdrew by some miracle, because he’s a curmudgeon if I ever knew one, and the bill passed.

I considered the President’s signature would be a routine matter and that we might get a supplemental appropriation through in the last few days of the session in spite of Kieth’s hasty promise to Scribner. A few days passed and President Truman left Washington on a speaking tour of the country in order to do a little politicking on his own reelection, and I became anxious about the mechanics of getting the bill to him, as he was making short stops and staying no place long, making short stops on a train, believe it or not.

I phoned Oscar Ewing just to check on whether or not the bill had been signed on about June 11th. He was confident that everything was in order, but he checked and found that the bill had not even been sent to the White House, as there was an error in one word, between the House and Senate versions, so someone in the legal office had pigeonholed the bill and was not doing anything about it. It could have been a pocket veto had I not started to agitate about it, even though we had done everything to get it through both sides. This absolutely panicked me.

Ewing got the legal difficulties unsnarled and then Anna and I phoned Les B and David Niles, who was then in the White House, to beseech them to get the bill by mail pouch to San Francisco, by special plane to the President that day.

After incredible mixups David Niles got it on the last plane to reach the President for several days. We sent a wire to Mac Connolly begging him to bring it to the President’s attention at once or it would surely be a pocket veto. And Florence telephoned and wired to Clark Clifford, who was her great friend and the President’s counsel who was accompanying him, and begged him to see that the President signed it.

The boys got the message and the bill was signed at last, on June 16, 1948, and just escaped the pocket veto.

Q: That’s an exciting story.

Lasker: Isn’t it exciting! We drew one deep breath and then started work on a deficiency appropriation for it in the Senate, because the House was hopeless because of Kieth’s promise to Scribner; Kieth being the chairman of the subcommittee on appropriations wouldn’t have thought of going back on his word.

We finally got Oscar Ewing to reverse the Bureau of the Budget, which did not want any more money for a bill. Ewing and Sheely went up on the Hill within 24 hours to testify before the Senate committee for only about nine million dollars. The Congress was in turmoil to get through with everything and adjourn. Norman Winter went down to hear testimony and we thought we’d get around three million from the Senate, but the subcommittee gave us only a million, which was finally cut to $500,000 in the conference between the House and the Senate on June 19th, the day they adjourned after a 24-hour session.

This is how we got little bits of money together for the main cause of death.


December 11, 1962 Excerpted interview transcript of Mary Lasker, Part 1, Session 7 from the Notable New Yorkers Collection. Columbia Univerisity Libraries, Oral History Research Office. 192-208. Accessed 14 July 2011

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