A pioneering group of physicians and social workers formed the first Association for the Prevention and Relief of Heart Disease in New York City in 1915. They were concerned about the lack of heart disease information. At that time, heart disease patients were considered doomed, limited to complete bed rest. So these physicians conducted studies in New York City and Boston to find out whether heart disease patients could safely return to work. Similar groups in Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago evolved into heart associations in the 1920s.
Interest spread widely in other cities across the United States and Canada. Recognizing the need for a national organization to share research findings and promote further study, six cardiologists representing several groups founded the American Heart Association in 1924. The founding members were Drs. Lewis A. Conner and Robert H. Halsey of New York; Paul D. White of Boston; Joseph Sailer of Philadelphia; Robert B. Preble of Chicago; and Hugh D. McCulloch of St. Louis. Drs. James B. Herrick of Chicago and William S. Thayer of Baltimore were also instrumental in the early planning. Dr. White, president of the AHA in 1941, once described the early years as a time of "almost unbelievable ignorance" about heart disease. The early efforts of the American Heart Association to overcome that ignorance included enlisting help from hundreds, then thousands, of physicians and scientists.
By the late 1930s, AHA members began considering ways to expand their activities to reach the general public. In 1946 the American Legion donated $50,000 to the AHA for research and to develop a community rheumatic fever program. Public support and funds established this and other programs. To broaden its scope, the AHA reorganized in 1948 and brought in non-medical volunteers with skills in business management, communication, public education, community organization and fund raising.
The American Heart Association made its public debut in late 1948 during a network radio contest, "The Walking Man," on the "Truth or Consequences" program hosted by Ralph Edwards. Millions of Americans sent contributions to the AHA along with guesses on the walking man's identity. The effort netted $1.75 million before Jack Benny was identified as the "Walking Man."
A small national staff in New York City then began to organize American Heart Association divisions across the country. They launched the first national fund-raising campaign the following year in February 1949, raising $2.7 million.
The American Heart Association's Growth
Since 1949, the American Heart Association has grown rapidly in size, financial resources, involvement with medical and non-medical volunteers, and influence -- both nationally and internationally. The AHA moved the National Center from New York City to Dallas in 1975 to better serve affiliates and local divisions nationwide. The volunteer-led affiliates and their divisions form a national network of local AHA organizations involved in providing research, education, and community programs and in raising money to support the association's work. The network continues to gain strength as it expands at the grass-roots level.
The AHA completed significant internal changes between 1980 and 1986, allowing it to reach the public with a louder, clearer voice. During the next eight years, the association became a much more visible champion of public health. The AHA also developed guidelines for the nation's healthcare system and supported the federal government's attempt to improve access to healthcare.
At the same time, the AHA continued to strengthen its internal programs and its internal management. The association revised its mission statement and focused its planning in three areas: cardiovascular science, cardiovascular education and community programs, and fund raising efforts. Achievements included stricter research standards, new healthcare site modules, and development of several new cookbooks. Large gifts allowed the AHA to support new research projects, move all scientific staff into one building, and sponsor creative professional education programs. Efforts to include more women and minorities in the leadership ranks began to pay off by the late 1980s, resulting in more efforts to understand the effects of heart disease and stroke on women and minorities.
The mid-1990s were a time of great change in the American Heart Association. The association's scientific findings began to move more quickly from laboratories and clinics to physician's offices and American households. The AHA took positions on important issues and made clear, simple statements about controlling risk factors. Volunteers and staff agreed on a strategy for improving affiliate research programs, and the national organization created new divisions dealing with stroke and emergency cardiac care. To reduce costs and increase international circulation, the association outsourced the publication of its scientific journals and began publishing them online.
Despite strong opposition from the tobacco industry, the American Heart Association continued to be an advocate for the American public, especially children.
Finally, and most profoundly, AHA volunteers and staff began transforming the organization into an enterprise that could be vibrant and relevant in the 21st century. The change was deeper than anything since 1948, when the AHA transformed itself from a scientific society into a voluntary health agency. The first step was in identifying the organization's strategic driving force in March 1995: Providing credible heart disease and stroke information for effective prevention and treatment.
Agreement on the driving force made it clear that individual Americans, not the AHA's affiliates, were the National Center's primary audience. The new driving force altered the whole organization, which can be seen in the decision to become a single corporation in June 1997. This action reinforced the spirit of cooperation that people brought to the effort.