Women’s History in Diabetes: Lee Ducat’s Tenacity Sparks JDRF
I’ve had the sincere pleasure of meeting quite a few people from the diabetes community and I’ve learned a little something from each of them. Most recently, I found myself a bit star-struck and very inspired having had the privilege to speak with the founder of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) and the National Disease Research Interchange (NDRI), Lee Ducat.
As you saw in our Women’s History Month infographic timeline, Lee is one of the pioneers for women in diabetes. Today, I couldn’t be more proud to feature her as she exemplifies what Women’s History Month should be all about.
In 1965, Lee was thrust into the world of diabetes when her 9-year-old son Larry was diagnosed with type 1. She was so shocked that she fainted when her husband told her the news. In 1970, she took Larry to see a new doctor, a decision that would change her and her family’s life.
“Someone had referred me to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Dr. Robert Kaye,” Lee said. “When the examination was finished, I asked, ‘Is this the way Larry’s life will be? Will he have to give himself shots for the rest of his life? Does he have to look forward to a life dependent on insulin?’ Doctor Kaye said, ‘If we had money for research, things can change, we can find a cure.’ I told him if money was all he needed, we could get him that. So, I did what I knew how to do – I threw a cocktail party and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (JDF) was founded on May 21, 1970 in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”
Lee and other volunteers who signed up at the cocktail party eventually began their work in their first office, a small apartment donated by Lee’s husband who was a builder at the time. Although Lee had an earlier career as a TV journalist and had worked with her children’s schools, she had no real experience running a non-profit organization. Despite this, JDF (which became JDRF in 1990) raised $10,000 during the first year.
“In light of what we know today, $10,000 doesn’t seem like much,” Lee said. “To the chapter in Philadelphia, $10,000 seemed like an enormous sum in the first year.”
The first JDF Board of Directors decided to give the entire amount to Dr. Kaye at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia as his continued research helped the organization grow. To give you some reference on how that $10,000 has grown into something monumental, last year JDRF raised more than $100 million for diabetes research.
But raising money wasn’t easy in the organization’s early years. Lee said there was little knowledge of diabetes and who it could impact because the general public thought diabetes was cured with the discovery of insulin.
“Let me transport you back to 1970. It was not known by most that a child could get diabetes. Insulin was the only treatment. It was a precarious life. Many people thought the discovery of insulin was a cure for diabetes,” Lee said.
During the ‘70s as JDF was growing, Lee worked to start new chapters around the country. She also realized when it came to fundraising, private donations would not be enough to accomplish some of the organization’s ambitious goals. So Lee decided to keep pressing on, this time to the federal government.
“We needed a major legislative effort,” Lee said. “I was lucky enough to work with Dick (Richard) Schweiker, senator from Pennsylvania. He became our advocate. He legislated to set up the Diabetes Commission, and the Diabetes Advisory Board. He pushed initiatives through Congress to grow the diabetes effort within the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. Eventually, a large part of our funding came from federal legislation.”
Lee worked for JDF for 10 years before founding NDRI. During her time with JDF she juggled running the growing Foundation with raising Larry and her two other children. She said that finding a work-life balance was one of her most difficult challenges.
“One of my major struggles was to balance my family with my drive and passion to start and grow JDRF,” Lee said. “When people say, ‘Lee, you’re going to run out of steam.’ I always say, ‘We don’t run on steam. What propels us is love for our children. We will never run out of that.’ How do I do everything I’m motivated to do, while still taking care of my husband, three children and six grandchildren? It’s very difficult, but you have to set priorities and get time with the children. I always worried I was giving JDRF more time than I was giving my own children. I realized you still do what you need to do to raise a child in the best way possible, and still do the best for your family and the world.”
Believe it or not, this is only part of Lee’s story. She’s currently on JDRF’s Board of Chancellors and still has plenty of input into the direction of the Foundation. But much of her time is now spent with NDRI, doing work that has made an impact on the lives of those with diabetes as well as those with other diseases. Make sure to check back next week for that post, because it’s equally inspiring.
All the best,
Disclosure: Lee Ducat received no compensation for this post. All opinions contained in this post reflect those of the interviewee, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.