Finding treatment and a cure for multiple sclerosis (MS) motivated a young student to seek changes many years ago. The National MS Society marks 75 years’ history in 2021.
Sylvia Friedman Lawry was a university student in New York City when her brother Bernard was diagnosed with MS. he began experiencing problems with his balance and vision. Her family’s experience promoted her and her sister Alice to place an ad in the New York Times in 1945, seeking out others whose family had experienced the disease.
The ad said, “Multiple sclerosis. Will anyone recovered from it please communicate with patient.” The sisters received 54 replies from people as desperate as they were. Most asked to be informed if the two heard anything promising.
“I was looking for medical clues that might have helped my brother,” Lawry said in an interview with the New York Post in 1959. “But when the responses started to snowball and come from all over the country, I decided to give up the law and let my creative energies spill over into helping people with MS.”
Her work initially brought together prominent research scientists and led to the founding of the National MS Society in 1947.She co-founded the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation that same year.
State chapters of the MS Society began to open their doors, including the Minnesota chapter in 1957.
In 1965 Lawry called a meeting in Vienna, Austria, to persuade more countries to join the Multiple Sclerosis International Federation. She was joined by actress and activist Shirley Temple Black, who was also a campaigner for those affected by MS.
An account of the meeting on the MS Society website states that the meeting was tense and there was some uncertainty in the room. The turning point came when Shirley Temple Black stood up:
She looked around the room, making eye contact with many of the delegates. Then she asked, “What have you got to lose?” There really was no risk, she argued, financial or otherwise. “We’re all here for the same reason,” she insisted, “and that’s to wipe out multiple sclerosis.”
Lawry tirelessly worked to raise awareness of MS and to seek funding for research. She had no formal scientific education but quickly immersed herself in research and activism.
One accomplishment was her work with Sen. Charles Tobey (R-New Hampshire), whose daughter had MS, to lobby Congress. Eventually she, Tobey and many others persuaded them to adopt legislation establishing what is now the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The institute began in 1950.
Bernard Friedman died of MS-related causes in 1973. ]Lawry died on February 24, 2001. By the time she died, Lawry’s work had brought prominence to the need to study and find ways to treat and someday cure MS.
The History Note is a monthly column produced in cooperation with the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities. Past History Notes and other disability history may be found at mnddc.org