American Cancer Society

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1913

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a cancer diagnosis almost certainly meant death. Cancer was such a mortifying subject that doctors sometimes even kept confirmed diagnoses from their patients, and patients at times kept the news from their families. In May 1913, a group of physicians and businessmen met at the Harvard Club in New York City to address the cancer stigma and information blackout. They believed it was important to raise public awareness and reduce taboos if broader progress in fighting cancer was to be achieved.

Led by Dr. Clement Cleveland, the resulting group resolved to promote cancer awareness through an educational campaign of articles in popular magazines and professional journals. They also produced a monthly bulletin called “Campaign Notes.” John Rockefeller Jr. provided the initial funds for the organization, which was named the American Society for the Control of Cancer. Rockefeller’s support eventually led to additional funds from other wealthy donors in the New York area. In its early years, membership was kept low, never surpassing 2,000.

In 1936 Marjorie Illig, a field representative and leader of a women’s public-health committee, suggested the group “wage war on cancer.” The Women’s Field Army wore khaki uniforms and successfully raised money and recruited volunteers. By 1938, the organization grew to ten times its initial size. It had become the premier voluntary health organization in the U.S. The organization continued to grow through small donations and was renamed the American Cancer Society in 1945. A $4 million fundraising campaign initiated a research program, and filled in gaps in the group’s education and prevention efforts. Today, it remains the largest voluntary health organization in the world.

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