Health With a Capital H

First Ladies for Health

February 18, 2011

By Lauren Sirkey, Health Communications Associate I

a stethescope on an American flag

On President's Day, we often reflect on all the contributions our Presidents have made to our country. From establishing civil rights to providing Health care, our Presidents, for the most part, have tried to do what is best for the country. This President's Day, however, I think it is important that we also recognize the efforts of the First Ladies.

As First Lady of the United States, the wife of the President takes on the social role as the White House hostess and events planner. While some First Ladies gladly accepted this role and performed it flawlessly, many were determined to go beyond their required duties and push for social change. For many First Ladies, public Health was the focus. Several played an influential role in shaping our modern Health system.

The following First Ladies, listed chronologically, have supported the creation of hospitals and Health centers, advocated legislation to increase Health standards and personal rights, and raised awareness of Health conditions and issues surrounding Health.

Caroline Harrison (First Lady 1889-1892)

Caroline Harrison contributed to our Health system by helping found the Johns Hopkins Medical School. When Johns Hopkins initially asked for her support, she refused unless they granted admission to women. They agreed, and Caroline Harrison served as head of a national committee that raised $50,000 for the institution.

Helen "Nellie" Taft (First Lady 1909-1913)

Even before being becoming First Lady, Nellie Taft was involved in promoting healthier and more equitable living and working conditions for workers. In one of her only public speeches, she vowed that she would do everything in her power to initiate reform in the federal workplace by providing safe, clean and well-lit conditions. Nellie Taft was the first wife of a President to successfully lobby for an official federal act. Due to her efforts, a presidential order was passed in 1912 creating Health and safety standards and regulations.

Florence Harding (First Lady 1921-1923)

Florence Harding was dedicated to the treatment and care offered to wounded and disabled World War I veterans. She involved herself in the internal affairs of the Veteran's Bureau and made frequent visits to Walter Reed Hospital's Red Cross Convalescent Home, where she ensured that veterans received the treatment and care they deserved.

Mamie Eisenhower (1953-1961)

photo of Mamie Eisenhower

Following President Eisenhower's heart attack, Mamie Eisenhower became increasingly aware of heart disease. She held both the local and the national chairmanship of the American Heart Association's fundraising efforts for new research.

Through her friendships with spouses of retired military personnel, Mamie Eisenhower learned that Army widows received minimal benefits from the government. She helped establish Knollwood, a facility that provided secure retirement housing and Health care services for Army widows.

Betty Ford (First Lady 1974-1977)

During her term as First Lady, Betty Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spoke openly about her experience with breast cancer and the screening, diagnosis and treatment options available. Betty Ford's openness led tens of thousands more American women to seek mammograms.

In 1978, Betty Ford was confronted by family members about her addiction to alcohol and opioid analgesics. After receiving treatment at the Long Beach Naval Hospital, she established the Betty Ford Center, a treatment center for chemical dependency that emphasized the needs of women. Today, the Betty Ford Center offers inpatient, outpatient, and day treatment for alcohol and other drug addictions, as well as prevention and education programs for children and families.

Rosalynn Carter (First Lady 1977-1981)

Rosalynn Carter was an important advocate for mental Health parity during her time both as First Lady of Georgia and as First Lady of the United States-and she continues in that work to the present day.

Through The Carter Center, she created The Carter Center Mental Health Task Force and currently serves on the board. She hosts the annual Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy, bringing together nationwide leaders in the mental Health field, and she provides stipends to journalists to report on topics related to mental Health or mental illness through The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism.

Rosalynn Carter also founded and serves as the President of the board of directors for the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving (RCI), an institute that addresses issues related both to family and professional caregivers for individuals living with chronic illness and diabetes, limitations related to aging, and other Health concerns across the lifespan. She launched "Every Child By Two," a nationwide campaign to increase early childhood immunizations, and she became an Honorary Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. She is also board member emeritus of the National Mental Health Association.

Nancy Reagan (First Lady 1981-1989)

Nancy Reagan played an active role in the fight against drugs. Her campaign, "Just Say No," focused on informing youth about the dangers of drug abuse. Nancy Reagan traveled across the United States visiting drug abuse prevention programs and drug rehabilitation centers. Her efforts and involvement in the D.A.R.E. anti-drug campaign led to the President's signing into law a drug enforcement bill that established the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Nancy Reagan became the first First Lady invited to address the United Nations General Assembly, where she spoke on international drug issues and trafficking laws.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (First Lady 1993-2001)

During the Clinton administration, Hillary Rodham Clinton headed the Task Force on National Health Care Reform. The Clinton Health Care Plan, however, failed to gain approval from Congress.

In 1997, Hillary Rodham Clinton advocated the creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, a program administered by HHS that provides matching funds to states for Health insurance to families with children. In the same year, she played a role in development of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which shifted emphasis toward children's Health and safety needs and attempted to correct problems with the foster care system that deterred the adoption of children with special needs.

In 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton supported the Foster Care Independence Act, which supported the provision of Health insurance to former foster children up to age 21 through state Medicaid funds. The bill intended to ease the transition into adulthood for unadopted foster children.

Laura Bush (First Lady 2001-2009)

women wearing red dresses

As First Lady, Laura Bush raised public awareness of women's heart disease. In cooperation with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, she created "The Heart Truth," a public service announcement to spread the word that heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women. Through the campaign, Laura Bush emphasized the importance of preventive screenings, healthy eating, and exercise. She urged women to recognize their risks for heart disease. She has continued this work even after leaving the White House, and as part of her public awareness campaign, red-colored gowns worn by 14 of America's First Ladies are currently on display at the Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

Laura Bush is also a strong supporter of mental Health promotion for children and young adults. She partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to develop the Helping America's Youth Initiative, a call for Americans to engage in helping young people become healthy and successful adults.

Michelle Obama (First Lady 2009-Present)

children walking

Obesity has become a growing epidemic in the United States, with rates of childhood obesity tripling from three decades ago. In response, First Lady Michelle Obama initiated "Let's Move," a program dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation. The program aims to reshape the nutritional environment in which children grow up by combining comprehensive strategies with common sense:

  • Giving parents useful information about nutrition
  • Providing kids healthier choices in schools
  • Helping children become more physically active
  • Ensuring that every family has access to healthy, affordable food.

Without the enduring efforts of our First Ladies, the Health standards of our nation would not be as high as they are today. First Ladies have raised awareness and forced conversations about Health issues Americans have faced and continue to struggle with. While many people will agree that our Health system is far from perfect, we now have access to information, prevention, and treatment programs that, without the help of the First Ladies, might not be available. So as we remember our Presidents, let us also recognize the First Ladies, past and present, for their contributions to the Health of the nation.