Age Sage

Florence Mahoney lives the life she preaches

Updated October 5, 2001

Washington, D.C. -- Florence Mahoney is a testament to the National Institute on Aging, an agency she helped create three decades ago.

At 102 years old, Mahoney continues to receive America's leading scientists, politicians and thinkers to her Georgetown home to discuss the important events of the day.

From child care to health care, from birth control to mental health, from cancer to exercise, from ethics to finance, from politics to journalism, there is no topic that escapes her mind and passionate desire to change the world for the better.

A longtime Arizona resident who owns a home in Paradise Valley and formerly owned a beautiful ranch near Kirkland with the late humanitarian Mary Lasker, Mahoney has played an important role in the political lives of many prominent Democrats -- from presidents Truman, Kennedy and Johnson to former Arizona governor and secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and former Phoenix mayor Terry Goddard.

While she no longer serves up her famous dinner parties where she expertly and graciously blended the leaders of the day to craft the legislation that created the modern National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging, she is not by any means idle.

During the past few years, Mahoney wrote her memoirs detailing the intense political debates in the 1950s, '60s and '70s surrounding national health insurance and the creation of NIH and its affiliates. Her book, Noble Conspirator, Florence S. Mahoney and the Rise of the National Institutes of Health, written by Judith Robinson, was released last week during a reception in Washington.

Senator Fritz Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, likened Mahoney to Florence Nightingale, who became known as the "lady with the lamp" because she worked late into the night ministering to the wounded.

"For biomedical research, Florence Mahoney is the lady with the lamp on America," Hollings says.

Born near Muncie, Indiana, on April 20, 1899, Florence Amelia Sheets was deeply influenced as an adolescent by the writings of Robert Green Ingersoll, who was a strong supporter of women's rights.

Her early influences of equal rights and love of exercise -- particularly dance -- proved to be powerful ones. After a tour of Europe in 1924, Mahoney met her husband, Daniel J. Mahoney, who was a newspaper executive with the Miami Daily News.

She became actively involved in Florida politics. Miami was just emerging as a resort city, and many influential people were soon gathered around the Mahoneys' dinner table. Mrs. Mahoney also struck up a close friendship with former Ohio governor James Cox, who was the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president in 1920. Cox also owned the Dayton Daily Newsand the Miami Daily News, the predecessor to what is now Cox Communications.

Mahoney began writing a Sunday column for the Daily Newsunder the pen name Mary Marley. Rather than serving up social gossip, she honed in on controversial and often ignored issues -- particularly mental health care and birth control. She also used her political connections to push through legislation in Florida to reform its dreadful mental health care system.

In the mid-1940s, Mahoney became friends with then-27-year-old John F. Kennedy, who was recovering from injuries suffered in World War II when his patrol boat was cut in half off the Solomon Islands in August 1943.

"He completely, utterly impressed me," Mahoney recalls of her first meeting with JFK. "He could do anything, I thought at the time. He had just come back from the Pacific. He asked more interesting questions than I have ever heard from anyone -- he had such a broad range of interests."

Mahoney and her husband divorced in 1950; she moved to Washington and into her home on Prospect Avenue. The house became the gathering ground for Washington's leading figures for many decades -- including the Trumans, Eleanor Roosevelt and the Kennedys.

Mahoney, along with Mary Lasker, began lobbying the federal government to greatly increase spending on health care. Their efforts were vigorously resisted by the American Medical Association, which branded the effort as "socialized medicine." But eventually, after years of work, Mahoney and Lasker were successful in transforming the National Institutes of Health into the most important medical research laboratory in the world.

Mahoney later helped ram through legislation creating the National Institute on Aging in the early 1970s. The duo persuaded Congress to overcome two vetoes by Richard Nixon before finally securing his signature two months before the embattled Republican president resigned under the threat of impeachment in August 1974.

During the midst of the battles on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Mahoney was also playing a key role in Arizona politics. She saw leadership potential in a young Arizona activist named Bruce Babbitt and she pushed him to step into the political arena.

At last week's reception, Babbitt recounted an afternoon in 1969 -- long before he became Arizona attorney general and later governor -- when he and Mahoney spent the day shopping in Nogales, Sonora.

"At the end of a long day, we crossed the border back into Arizona to a little town called Tubac, where we wound up in a cowboy bar filled with very rough-looking characters, all of whom had had plenty to drink," says Babbitt.

"I didn't think we fit in. The characters were kind of eyeing us as the rather exotic Eastern people that we were.

"Florence turns and she says to me, 'Bruce, now is the time to start on your political career.'

"'Florence, what do you have in mind?'"

"And she said, 'Bruce, this is a great place to start campaigning. I'm going to introduce you to this audience.'

"And she picked me up by the sleeve and marched me over to the bar and turned to one of these characters and said, 'I want to introduce you to Bruce Babbitt. He's going to be the governor of Arizona.'

"Well," Babbitt says. "We made it out of the bar.

"But I have, of course, learned a lesson about how it is you step in to life, take a position and act upon it.

"That's Florence."

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