Catalyst for a Cure

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Class of ’54 | It’s no secret that Lee Ducat Ed’54 “enjoys being a girl,” as the show tune goes. But while she talks with glee of shopping and makeup, she never lets you forget that she’s on a mission: to help find a cure for diabetes. 

It’s something she’s been at for 40 years now, and her peaches-and-cream complexion and frothy blond hair can’t conceal the fact that there’s a “steel hand inside the velvet glove,” as she puts it. She credits a combination of the Right Stuff and the “woman stuff” for driving the success of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), which has raised more than $1.4 billion since Ducat founded it in 1970.

That was five years after her 9-year-old son, Larry, was diagnosed with the disease—a verdict that floored the young mother.

“It was monumental for me,” she says now. “I didn’t know anyone who had diabetes, and I certainly didn’t understand that children could get it. I must have cried for a whole year.”

Then the steel kicked in.

“I decided I needed to do something,” recalls Ducat, a South Philadelphia native. “I needed to find other parents who were dealing with what was then a rigorous treatment regime. I became very focused on changing things, on raising money and finding a cure.”

The problem was that back in the 1970s, most people thought diabetes had already been cured—by the discovery of insulin 50 years earlier. No one was interested in donating money to fund research for something they thought wasn’t that big of a problem.

“So I launched a huge PR effort,” says Ducat. “In research, media coverage is power.”

She spent the decade wangling her way into meetings with experts at children’s hospitals and into medical conferences—with the winsome and articulate Larry in tow. Her instincts worked. She scored valuable television and radio coverage, drawing on the chops she’d honed as a girl when she’d appeared with her sister on The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour.

By 1977, even People magazine had taken notice, penning a feature on her fight to gain recognition for juvenile (type 1) diabetes, the rarer version of the disease that typically strikes those under 40 and requires daily doses of insulin. It was around then that JDRF really took off. “Our membership grew, which helped with the fundraising,” Ducat says, adding that if the organization had done nothing but provide support for families with diabetic children, it would have done enough. 

But what started as an informal networking effort to bring Philadelphia parents of diabetics together soon grew into one of the largest volunteer-based health organizations in the world, one whose 115 US chapters (and seven affiliates elsewhere) now raise $100 million each year.

Not bad for a woman who wanted to be a doctor after taking some “great sciences courses” at Penn but was dissuaded by her father—who, she says, “laughed and told me that wasn’t a field for women.” Instead she pursued an education degree, landed a job as a music supervisor for a New Jersey school district, and eventually had three children—the first of whom would cause her to learn about the science of diabetes in a way she never would have imagined. (Her other two children are not diabetic.)

Today she is keenly following developments in stem-cell research—which she thinks could eventually provide a cure for diabetes—and in unraveling the genetic mechanisms that cause it. The need is greater than ever. Between 1977, when that People article came out, and 2007, the number of Americans living with all forms of diabetes had swelled from 10 million to nearly 24 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 90 percent of all diabetics now are type 2, or non-insulin dependent, which is often linked to obesity and lack of exercise. 

The incidence of all kinds of diabetes is increasing, even in places like Scandinavia, where it was once a rarity. That’s why, even though the picture has brightened in a lot of ways (such as treating and managing the disease), the fight continues for Ducat. She points to the serious complications that continue to plague diabetics—including cardiovascular problems, amputation, and loss of sight, as well as depression, addiction, and high suicide rates.

Having been named a “Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania” by Governor Edward G. Rendell C’65 Hon’00 and Judge Marjorie Rendell CW’69 two years ago, Ducat says she is now most interested in “filling the voids that haven’t been looked at closely.” She sees herself as “the catalyst who can make things happen”—a prime example of which is her 1980 founding of the National Disease Research Interchange, a program that she says essentially started the field of human-tissue procurement. So far, it’s provided upwards of 300,000 human biomedical samples to researchers working on all sorts of diseases.

As she prepared for a gala JDRF celebration in May honoring her 40-year effort—she finally chose a new black dress in favor of the red one she had been eyeing—she seemed nervous about all the fuss.

“People ask me, am I satisfied at all that I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I don’t really think about it. And I don’t even feel angry or frustrated that we haven’t yet found a cure, either. I’m just doing the work. Trying to get things done.”

—JoAnn Greco

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