Claude Denson Pepper was born near Dudleyville, Alabama on September 8, 1900. He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1921 and from Harvard Law School in 1924.
After establishing a general law practice in Perry, Florida, Pepper began his political career with his election to the Florida House of Representatives in 1929.
While working in the State Capitol in 1931 he met his future wife, Mildred Webster outside the Governor’s office in Tallahassee. Claude and Mildred were married on December 29, 1936 in St. Petersburg, Florida and for 43 years they were inseparable.
In 1936, Senior Florida Senator, Duncan Fletcher, died while in office and Pepper was elected to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacant seat. He quickly became a leader of the New Dealers in Congress and a friend and confidant of President Franklin Roosevelt. Against what seemed to be overwhelming opposition from conservative isolationists in 1940 and 1941, he was able to lead the fight to pass the Lend-Lease Act which allowed the U.S. to support the Allied effort in World War II.
In domestic affairs, he also made a name for himself as somewhat of a “radical” by sponsoring bills for National Health Care, equal pay for equal work for women, cancer and heart disease research programs, and a minimum wage. Senator Pepper was co-author of legislation that established the National Cancer Institute, the first of many National Institutes of Health.
Following his defeat for election to a third full term in the U.S. Senate in 1950, Pepper returned to his law practice in offices in Tallahassee, Washington and Miami. In 1963, he returned to Congress as the Representative of the newly-created 3rd Congressional District of Florida.
Pepper was appointed as the Ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Aging when it was created (with the help of David Pryor and others in 1975). Pepper became Chairman of that Committee in 1977. Serving as Chairman of the Committee until 1983, he became known through the U.S. as “Spokesman for the Elderly.” In this capacity, he crusaded for an end to involuntary retirement, strengthened the Social Security system, fought age discrimination, and pushed for stronger legislation to end abuse of the elderly. He also chaired the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Comprehensive Health Care, a body created through an amendment of his added to the 1988 Medicare Catastrophic Protection Act, and he worked tirelessly to strengthen the Medicare program.
During Claude Pepper’s five decades of public service, he was a strong and effective advocate for millions of Americans in the areas of health care reform and economic security. His numerous achievements will be felt by generations to come: Americans guaranteed a decent wage, or saved from death or illness by breakthroughs in biotechnology, or protected from age discrimination in the work force or presented with a decent retirement income by the Social Security program.
He left monuments such as the National Institutes of Health, a strengthened Medicare program, and a strengthened Social Security system. He achieved his goal, “to lighten the burden upon those who suffer,” many times over.
Senator Pepper died in Washington, D.C. on May 30, 1989.