Monday, November 20, 2023

Q&A with Judith L. Pearson






Judith L. Pearson is the author of the new biography Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker. Pearson's other books include From Shadows to Life


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of activist and philanthropist Mary Lasker (1900-1994)?


A: Funny story here. I pulled a George Lucas and wrote the sequel before the prequel as he did with the Star Wars movies!


Mary appears in the first chapter of my previous book, From Shadows to Life: A Biography of the Cancer Survivorship Movement. The small amount of research I did on her absolutely hooked me; I knew she deserved her own biography.


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: Mary gave a very thorough oral history to Columbia University over the course of three decades, on the provision that it not be made public until her death. Columbia in turn transcribed the oral history and made it available online.


While hearing someone tell their story is interesting, I know first-hand from previous books that it’s cumbersome as a research tool. You must stop and start recordings to take notes.


She was an incredibly multifaceted person: incredible wealth, one of the largest private art collections ever in America, an address book filled with presidents, congressmen, senators, and celebrities.


Yet Mary was driven to grow the funding for medical research through the federal government. Amazingly, nothing was being spent on the deadly conditions of cancer and heart disease.


She thought this was ludicrous, and felt the same about the era’s fatalistic assumption that these diseases were simply God’s will. That simply wasn’t good enough for Mary.


So while she could have done nothing more than travel, shop, and entertain, she spent her time pounding the halls of Congress. Not only was no one else on this crusade, there certainly weren’t women citizen lobbyists. She was definitely a woman ahead of her time!

Q: How well-known was Mary Lasker during her lifetime?


A: Mary was well-known in New York City for her lavish parties and as the head of the Lasker Foundation. She and her husband, Albert, had created it to make financial awards to researchers.


Albert called these scientists “research bargains,” although he schooled Mary that even they didn’t have deep enough pockets to move the needle on cancer and heart disease.


The foundation is still very much in existence 80 years later, and over one third of its awardees go on to win Nobel Prizes.


She was also a familiar name beginning in the late 1950s for her Manhattan beautification project. Mary planted tulips, daffodils, and chrysanthemums in the medians of Park Avenue, a project that also continues today.


Q: The Washington Independent Review of Books said of the book, “Pearson illuminates the accomplishments of her subject, a woman who arguably did more than any other individual to improve the health of Americans throughout the 20th century...” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as Lasker's legacy today?


First and foremost, authors love it when reviewers like their books and book subjects! But more than that is the joy I feel every time I’m able to write or speak about her. She certainly deserves the recognition, although she preferred a more background role, calling herself a “catalytic agent.”


But I also believe that when we learn about human beings who have gone above and beyond to change the world for fellow human beings, we become inspired to change what we can in whatever way we can.


Mary’s work, which culminated in the National Cancer Act of 1971, ignited research that has gone on to save millions of lives around the world, including mine. Every time a researcher discovers some new treatment, it leads other researchers to reach a little farther.


I survived breast cancer 12 years, and I have no doubt that my chemotherapy drugs came from just such connected discoveries.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I appear to be entrenched in unsung medical heroes and heroines. My new book (working titled Radical Sisters) weaves the stories of Shirley Temple Black, Rose Kushner, and Evelyn Lauder.


During the Women’s Health Revolution, each of these women used her breast cancer diagnosis to change the way women were treated, both physically and emotionally. It’s another one that’s such a joy to write.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The prologues to all of my books are on my website, And on each book page is a button to request an autographed book plate. Books make terrific holiday gifts, hint, hint!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Judith L. Pearson.

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