AHA marks 100th birthday at site where organization was founded

Centennial event in Chicago celebrates volunteers, supporters and a century of progress.
Bold Hearts Celebration at the Drake Hotel in Chicago
From left, American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown, TV personality and event emcee Star Jones, AHA Chairperson of the Board Marsha Jones and 2023-24 President Joseph Wu cheer the association’s centennial Monday night at the Bold Hearts Celebration at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, where the AHA was founded. (American Heart Association photos)

A century ago, six physicians assembled at the Drake Hotel in Chicago with one goal in mind: to save lives. There — on June 10, 1924 — they signed the founding documents that created the American Heart Association.

Monday, exactly 100 years after that historic day, the American Heart Association gathered at the same hotel for two Founders Day celebrations to honor volunteers, supporters and other organization luminaries.

"Today is a unique moment as we look back at an astonishing number of accomplishments," AHA Chief Executive Officer Nancy Brown said in opening remarks at the evening's Bold Hearts Celebration. "And we look forward to a second century filled with more bold moves and continued mission impact."

The evening celebration, emceed by lawyer, TV personality, heart disease survivor and AHA National Volunteer Star Jones, included music from the Temptations, a red carpet event, birthday cake of course — and the opportunity to celebrate people and organizations that have helped shape the AHA.

"Here's to our first 100 years, and our second century of impact, and to a world of longer, healthier lives," Jones told a crowd of some 500 people in the Drake's Gold Coast Room.

Early in the evening, Brown presented the National Football League with the AHA's Award of Meritorious Achievement for a longstanding collaboration focused on physical activity and heart health.

The collaboration began when the NFL Play 60 program was created with the goal of encouraging children to get at least an hour of physical activity each day. The two organizations' shared efforts gained significant momentum this past year following the on-field cardiac arrest, resuscitation and recovery of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin in early 2023.

Understanding the opportunity to potentially save lives, the NFL began using its powerful brand platform to drive global awareness and behavior change. In doing so, it turned legions of worldwide football fans into lifesavers.

In 2023, the NFL also established the Smart Heart Sports Coalition with the American Heart Association and Damar Hamlin's Chasing M's Foundation as founding members. Today the coalition works in all 50 states to adopt evidence-based public policies that will prevent fatal outcomes from sudden cardiac arrest among high school students. Since the founding of the coalition, more than a dozen states have signed these policies into law.

The league is also a national youth supporter of the American Heart Association's Nation of Lifesavers movement, which is empowering bystanders with lifesaving CPR skills.

This year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league hosted the AHA to teach CPR at the Super Bowl experience. NFL teams across the U.S. followed with their own CPR events for staff, families, fans and communities; and the league incorporated CPR training as part of the NFL Draft.

"It is a true honor for us to partner with the American Heart Association," Goodell said in accepting the AHA award, noting that the collaboration provides the NFL a chance to urge the public: "Don't be a bystander; be an active participant in saving lives."

Celebrating a century

Monday's celebration also hailed philanthropist Sarah Ross Soter for a landmark $15 million investment to jump-start a new Go Red for Women Venture Fund as part of AHA Ventures, to more rapidly develop solutions to improve women's health. A previous gift from Soter helped launch the AHA's Go Red for Women Strategically Focused Research Network.

By driving investment in innovative companies during their early launch stage, the new fund will expand research focused on women, accelerate translation of those research findings into better ways to care for patients, and help bring to market products and technologies to improve women's health. The fund's focus includes cardiovascular, metabolic and neurologic solutions across a women's entire life span.

"Think of it this way — when science shows us new ways to help, the fund will speed the delivery of those answers to the hands of people who need them," Brown said.

The evening also featured an announcement of $12.9 million in seminal funding, from the Henrietta B. and Frederick H. Bugher Foundation, for research investigating stroke as a systemic and chronic disease. Details on that research project are set to be announced at the International Stroke Conference in February. The stroke research funding is the latest in a series of Bugher Foundation gifts dating back to the mid-1980s and totaling more than $63 million.

The Chicago events provided a chance to look to the future of the AHA as well as reflect on the past 100 years. Founded in 1924 as a professional society for doctors to discover more about heart and other circulatory diseases, the organization within just one year convened its first Scientific Sessions, a meeting that today is the largest annual cardiovascular meeting in the country.

As outlined in its 1924 New York state incorporation papers, the early AHA also aimed to gather and publish information about "occupations suitable for patients with diseases or disorders of the heart or circulation" and encourage development of special facilities for treatment, convalescent care and even permanent care for heart patients in need.

At Monday's celebration and an earlier luncheon at the Drake, the AHA recognized other philanthropists whose exceptional support over the years has made a significant impact in improving heart and brain health, including:

  • The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust and trustee Walter Panzirer for support exceeding $83 million, including to fund crucial initiatives to improve health care for rural residents
  • Joe and Linda Chlapaty for pivotal gifts funding atrial fibrillation research, supporting scholars at historically black colleges and universities, and most recently a $10 million pledge to the AHA through the Paul Dudley White Legacy Society
  • "Cornerstone" supporters who are helping to lay the groundwork for the next 100 years. The AHA's Second Century Campaign is soaring past its $500 million goal toward a total of $600 million by the end of the calendar year

Actress and heart disease survivor Susan Lucci, emcee for the afternoon's Second Century Campaign Cornerstone Luncheon, told more than 90 attendees that among many AHA events she has participated in, this day was extra special.

"There is just so much to be proud of, so many ways that our mission has been brought to life, so many future plans to be excited about," she said.

The evening event acknowledged the American Heart Association's past chief executives, whom Brown described as "incredible leaders (who) built the foundation that has allowed the American Heart Association to see all of this great success." Dudley Hafner took the reins in 1980, followed by Cass Wheeler, who served as CEO from 1997 to 2008. Both men were in attendance.

In addition to leaders such as Hafner and Wheeler, the association has been strengthened by countless volunteers. In 1948, the AHA reorganized to become a voluntary health organization including laypeople in addition to medical professionals. Today, there are more than 32 million volunteers, donors and supporters.

Monday evening, the association honored this year's volunteer leaders: former PNC Financial Services executive and AHA Chairperson of the Board Marsha Jones, and Stanford Cardiovascular Institute Director and AHA President Dr. Joseph Wu.

Also spotlighted were 14 descendants of the AHA's founding physicians and other luminaries. "A living legacy is in the room," Star Jones said as she joined the group in the event's Descendants Lounge.

At the luncheon, longtime volunteer and Second Century Campaign chairman Jim Postl emphasized how essential the AHA's mission remains, even after 100 years. "The world needs the American Heart Association to keep improving, because despite all the success that we've enjoyed, heart disease and stroke remain the top two killers worldwide," he said. "With your help, that won't always be the case."