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  • Judith L. Pearson

Lake Forest’s Mary Lasker Helped Lead the Charge for Medical Research in 20th Century

By Judith L. Pearson

Twenty-five-thousand square feet. Fifty-six rooms. A 100-by-40-foot swimming pool. This is not the description of a European palace or a lavish hotel. Rather, it was the storied Mill Road Farm, designed and built by the father of modern advertising, Albert Lasker.

A wealthy and successful Chicago businessman, Albert and his first wife, Flora, sought a bigger house for the family. But Albert, a golf enthusiast, had a second motivation for their new home. In the early part of the 20th century, Jews were banned from membership at the exclusive area country clubs. So Albert built his own.

"They both had character and intelligence," a friend said of Albert and Mary Lasker.

In 1921, he purchased 480 acres of land from his pal, meatpacking king Louis Swift, paying $1,000 an acre (the equivalent of $17,000 per acre today). When completed, Mill Road Farm came in at a price tag of $3.5 million (over $56 million today). It was the golf course, however, that was Albert’s pride and joy. Everyone wanted to play it, which the best amateurs and pros did, trying to win Albert’s standing offer of $500 for anyone breaking par. Only one pro succeeded.

Flora died suddenly in 1936, and much of the joy went out of Albert’s life until he met the remarkable Mary Woodard. On her first visit to Mill Road Farm, she was in awe.

“It was in very beautiful taste, and it had marvelous gardens,” she said. Although the estate required a staff of more than 50 – making Lasker one of the largest employers in the Lake Forest area at the time – Mary admired Albert’s goal of creating a welcoming country house.

Mary fell in love with it immediately, saying, “It was incomparably the best place in the Middlewest, all quite unpretentious looking at the same time, not at all grand looking.”

Mary fell in love with Albert, too, and he with her. As a mutual friend later explained, “They both had character and intelligence, and above all, love, that simple and scarce thing. You couldn’t be around them and not know it.”

They had much in common, but also learned from one another’s interests. He taught her about business and politics; she taught him about art and entertaining. That combination led the Laskers to their greatest mutual interests: leading the charge to increase federal medical research funding and bringing to a halt the country’s major killers, heart disease and cancer. So intense was their drive, it developed into a crusade. The result was the tremendous growth of the National Institutes of Health, today the largest biomedical research facility in the world.

Additionally, they created the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, giving monetary prizes to researchers. Its prestige is still so great, the prizes are called the “American Nobels.” When Albert died in 1952 – sadly of cancer – Mary doubled down on her efforts. Using her skills and those Albert taught her, she achieved the ultimate success: the 1971 National Cancer Act.

Mary and Albert’s story unfolds for the first time in all its splendor in Crusade to Heal America: The Remarkable Life of Mary Lasker, published by Mayo Clinic Press. (Read the prologue at JudithLPearson.com.) The saga exemplifies the truth in cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” The History Center will host author Judith Pearson for a book talk on Thursday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. – register at https://lflbhistory.org/crusade-heal-america-remarkable-life-mary-lasker.

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