For more than a century, the American Lung Association has worked to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease with a vision of a world free of lung disease. Much of our success wouldn't have been possible without the help of the many inspirational women who have advanced our mission along the way. In honor of Women's History Month, we recognize and thank the trailblazing women championing lung health.
In 1904, the American Lung Association (then known as the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis) was founded to address tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in the U.S. at the time. It was the first voluntary health organization in the nation, empowering citizens and scientists to collaborate in an effort to address public health threats and save lives. Women quickly took action to make a difference.
Early in the Lung Association's history, a volunteer from Delaware, launched the first Christmas Seals® fundraising campaign in 1907. The plan: design and print special holiday seals and sell them at the post office for a penny each. Alongside stamps, Americans everywhere were adding the special Christmas Seal to holiday cards, and by the end the campaign (and after a surprise endorsement by President Roosevelt), she and a large group of committed volunteers had raised ten times their financial goal, and a tradition was born.
Shirley Temple and volunteers prepare Christmas Seals in 1940. Through World War I, The Great Depression and World War II, the tradition continued. As the organization's mission expanded to include research into other respiratory diseases, more people supported the began to support the American Lung Association and seceived the Christmas Seals to send to friends and families on their holiday cards to build further awareness for the organization. This translated into advancements for lung disease treatments and improved lung health for Americans.
Increased American Lung Association-funded research and the extension of the mission to other lung diseases opened the door for two women to make a significant impact on lung disease. In 1950, research grantee Dr. Edith Lincoln discovered that, isoniazid, an antibiotic, prevents serious complications of some types of tuberculosis in children. By that time, the disease had gone from being one of the leading cause of death in North American and Europe for nearly two centuries, to number seven.
In 1959, research grantee Dr. Mary Ellen Avery discovered that the lungs of newborns with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) lack a fatty substance she named surfactant. This finding led to improved treatment for RDS, which had been a leading cause of infant death, particularly in those born prematurely. It has been estimated that more than 800,000 newborn lives have been saved since then. For her continued investigative work in this field, Dr. Avery was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991.
Today the American Lung Associations supports women researchers throughout the country as part of the American Lung Association Research Team. Learn more about our current research.
Through the '50s and '60s, women's clubs across the country joined the cause by selling the seals in their communities and stuffing envelopes for the holiday season. Local lung associations had many volunteers helping with the Christmas seal campaign, both sending requests and tracking donations.
From local communities to the White House, Christmas Seals have historically enjoyed great support and visibility nationwide. In fact, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy officially launched the 1961 Christmas Seals Campaign at the White House. The Christmas Seal for that year featured a family decorating their home for the holiday season.
In 1968, actor Carol Burnett joined a long list of celebrities who teamed up with the organization to support Christmas Seals. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the American Lung Association expanded its mission once again and stepped up to protect children and families from air pollution and tobacco addiction. This also included pushing for enactment of the landmark 1970 Clean Air Act.
Christmas Seals continues today, as the American Lung Association works to support the more than 32 million Americans living with lung disease and the more than half of Americans living in a county with unhealthy air. The Lung Association still continues to partner with the public to support its mission through direct donations; events such as Fight For Air Climbs, LUNG FORCE Walks and galas; and more. And as the Lung Association continues to evolve to meet the needs of today's public, we have continued the tradition of public health campaigns, and in 2014 launched LUNG FORCE - a nationwide movement to unite women against lung cancer and for lung health.
Why LUNG FORCE? Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women, yet awareness remains critically low. According to the 2021 Lung Health Barometer, although lung cancer is the leading cancer killer of women and men, only 10% of adults understand that lung cancer is among the most likely cancers to affect women while 35% knew that it was among those likely to affect men. Through LUNG FORCE, the Lung Association connects with the communities that we serve to raise awareness about lung cancer, its risk factors and screening options.
The Lung Association is proud to continue to support lung health through Christmas Seals, while expanding upon the tradition of public health campaigns through our LUNG FORCE initiative. In partnership with the public and researchers, we'll continue to strive towards a world free of lung disease.
Blog last updated: August 30, 2023