The Early Years
The American Cancer Society was founded in 1913 as the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC) by 15 prominent physicians and business leaders in New York City. At that time, a cancer diagnosis amounted to near certain death. Rarely mentioned in public, this taboo disease was steeped in fear and denial. Physicians sometimes did not tell their patients they had cancer, and patients often did not tell their friends and families if they had been diagnosed.
The Society’s founders knew they had to raise public awareness about cancer if progress was to be possible. The number of doctors, nurses, patients, and family members to be reached was overwhelming. Despite the enormity of their task, our founders and their colleagues set about writing articles for popular magazines and professional journals; publishing Campaign Notes, a monthly bulletin of cancer information; and recruiting physicians throughout the country to help educate the public.
It was in these early years that the Society first used its now-iconic Sword of Hope symbol, which today is part of the organization’s logo. The sword came from a 1928 nationwide poster contest sponsored by the ASCC and the New York City Cancer Committee. George E. Durant of Brooklyn won the contest, receiving a first prize of $500. He selected the sword to express the crusading spirit of the cancer control movement. The twin-serpent caduceus, which forms the handle of the sword, emphasizes the medical and scientific nature of the Society's work. Classically, twined serpents represent healing of the sick and creativity of the healthy.
The Women's Field Army
In 1936, Marjorie G. Illig, an ASCC field representative and chair of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Committee on Public Health, made an extraordinary suggestion. She proposed creating a legion of volunteers whose sole purpose was to wage war on cancer. The Women’s Field Army, as this organization came to be called, was an enormous success. Its recruits donned khaki uniforms, complete with insignia of rank and achievement, and went out into the streets to raise money and educate the public.
In 1935, there were 15,000 people active in cancer control throughout the United States. At the close of 1938, there were 10 times that number. More than anything else, it was the Women’s Field Army that moved the American Cancer Society to the forefront of voluntary health organizations.
In 1945, the ASCC was reorganized as the American Cancer Society. It was the beginning of a new era for the organization. World War II was over; the single greatest threat to modern democracy had been defeated; and the nation could at last focus its attention on the public health enemy at home. Many believed it was time for another bold move.
In 1946, philanthropist Mary Lasker and her colleagues met this challenge, helping to raise more than $4 million for the Society – $1 million of which was used to establish and fund the Society’s groundbreaking research program. With the aid and assistance of dedicated volunteers like Lasker and Elmer Bobst, our research program began to bear fruit. In 1947, we also began our famous cancer signals campaign, a public education effort about the signs and symptoms of cancer.
Around the same time the cancer signals campaign began, Dr. Sidney Farber, one of the Society’s first research grantees, achieved the first temporary cancer remission in a child with acute leukemia using the drug Aminopterin, thus opening the modern era of chemotherapy for cancer treatment. It was just the beginning of how scientists who the American Cancer Society supported early in their careers would go on to make great leaps in understanding and stopping cancer.
Society-funded researchers have contributed to nearly every major cancer research breakthrough we’ve seen in the more than 60 years since the Society’s research program began. They’ve helped establish the link between cancer and smoking; demonstrated the effectiveness of the Pap test; developed cancer-fighting drugs and biological response modifiers such as interferon; dramatically increased the cure rate for childhood leukemia; proven the safety and effectiveness of mammography; and so much more. All told, the American Cancer Society has invested more than $4 billion in research, including giving 47 future Nobel Prize winners the recognition and funding they needed to get started.
Expanding Our Reach
In the 1960s and 70s, the American Cancer Society began to expand its reach as an organization, working even more than in the past to involve all sectors in its efforts to fight back against the disease. In the 60s, the Society was instrumental in the development of the Surgeon General’s report on the link between smoking and cancer when early Society-sponsored studies confirmed the connection. This upheaval in the perception of smoking laid the groundwork for tobacco control progress – and for the corresponding lives saved – that continues today.
Our advocacy later contributed to the passage of the National Cancer Act in 1971, which granted special funds and authority to expand the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and revolutionized the war on cancer. With the development of the NCI, the American Cancer Society also had to adapt to a new role – that of filling in the gaps of the federal government’s focus in areas such as cancer prevention and education. Likewise, as National Institutes of Health funding for young investigators has diminished, the Society has allocated more research grants to that generation, helping promising young medical researchers enter the cancer field. Today, the American Cancer Society is a global leader in the fight against cancer, with $1 billion in resources annually to save lives by helping people stay well and get well, by finding cures, and by fighting back against the disease. Thanks in part to the Society’s work, there are nearly 14 million people alive in the United States alone who have survived cancer. In fact, more than 400 lives are being saved each day that would have otherwise been lost to cancer. And we won’t rest until we expand that progress so that no one – in the US or around the world – will ever lose another birthday to cancer.
Last Revised: 2/5/14