Along Came Mary

            Shirley Haley of Mattapoisett knows a thing or two about writing. One aspect of writing that she fully appreciates is the labor-intensive nature of the process. It takes a disciplined mind to grind out page after page, follow up on all the edits and rewrites and absorb all the pressure associated with getting the job done in a timely manner.

            Haley is just now breathing sighs of relief and gratitude upon the completion of her book “Angel in Mink,” an account of Mary Lasker’s (1900-1994) crusade for medical research and the National Institutes of Health. It is the story of one woman’s nearly single-handed work in helping to establish the NIH in becoming the most important funding agency for medical research on the globe. The book itself was funded by the NIH in gratitude to Mary Lasker, their champion.

            Lasker and Haley share a common thread: Their husbands believed in them at a time when such attitudes weren’t extensively popular.

            For Haley, her husband John agreed with her desire to go back to school and get her degree. Once enrolled at Southeastern Massachusetts University (now UMass Dartmouth), professors quickly noted her gift for writing, including technical subject matter. She was offered and accepted a position, not only completing her graduate degree but also teaching.

            “I graduated in the same timeframe my son graduated from high school,” Haley recalled with a smile.

            These two women also share a spirit full of determination requiring physical and mental strength and purpose.

            Lasker had divorced her first husband due to his alcoholism, but she enjoyed an active social life replete with well-heeled families and self-made millionaires. There she met Albert Lasker. Their relationship would flourish and they married. Albert saw in Mary a driven spirit whose quest to help fund and expand the NIH would become important to him also.

            Haley would become a technical writer of healthcare policy and the political climates that held sway over funding. Lasker would find the money and how to wrist it out of disparate sources and congressional committees.

            Lasker was unashamedly outgoing. In her quest to get funding for the NIH, she tirelessly met with congressional leaders and policy makers that would lead to the NIH becoming the international leader in healthcare funding.

            Despite nurturing important relationships through lavish parties, traveling across the country to shake hands with millionaires, being always gracious with a flair for knowing what would make the money flow, Lasker remains an unknown hero today.

            Haley wanted to change that. When contacted by her former colleague, Brady Metheny, about writing a book with Lasker as the subject, Haley didn’t hesitate. By then she had retired from writing and editing journals and articles related to the healthcare industry. From the comfort of her beachside home, she could take her time writing about a woman she believed deserved credit for her contributions in making the world a safer place through medical research.

            But time became of the essence when Metheny passed away and the ACT for the NIH assumed oversight of the project. The pressure to produce was once again real. It would take Haley three years to complete Lasker’s story; that is not a long time when one considers the amount of necessary research and the lack of solid, historical data about Lasker’s work.

            With whom did Lasker interface? How did she get the funding needed for the NIH to expand? Most of what is known about this powerhouse comes from one-on-one interviews that were later transcribed. Haley and a research assistant plowed through that material during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

            Haley did not falter. She believed in the project. People needed to know the incredible impact Lasker would have everywhere on the planet due to the expansion of healthcare research. Lasker was a philanthropist and an activist going so far as establishing her own foundation. She would go on to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

            Lasker’s efforts would eventually find the NIH being appropriated $45,000,000,000 in 2022. And still there is more work to be done. Such local institutions as Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Broad Institute, Inc. and Harvard Medical School all receive research funding from the NIH.

            And there is an important flipside to this story. Medical research creates jobs. In 2021, the NIH awarded grants and contracts that directly supported 40,440 jobs and $7,837,000,000 in economic activity in Massachusetts alone. It is likely Lasker would be thrilled with what she put into motion, while keeping her foot on the gas pedal.

            This is the type of person Haley shares with us. The book is highly readable. Haley fleshes out Lasker, bringing to life a woman with charm, a type of physical beauty not seen today, who engaged presidents and heads of state in conversation. Haley gives us a real person beyond the dollars and cents generated by her work, a woman of valor only now being recognized to the fullest.

            More recently founded is ACT for NIH, a nonprofit advocacy group working with Congress to make biomedical research funding a national priority. The ACT for NIH Foundation works to advance lifesaving biomedical research by educating policymakers and the public about the NIH. ACT funded Haley’s book, which she hopes expands people’s knowledge on the importance of the NIH.

            Contact  the Mattapoisett Library for information on how to obtain a copy of the book.

By Marilou Newell

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