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The story behind the doctors that diagnosed Lou Gehrig

In 1939, the Yankees’ Iron Horse received an accurate diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic.

Lou Gehrig in Tears After Ovation

Earlier this week, I was sifting through Yankees news when Jonathan Eig’s recent op-ed caught my eye. Eig’s piece contains excerpts from the letters Lou Gehrig wrote to his doctors at the Mayo Clinic, in the two years preceding his death. The correspondence moved me to tears, both for the obvious reason (they comprise the narrative of a man — an American hero — coming to terms with his bleak prognosis), and also because the letters evidence in intimate terms how Gehrig faced his illness in the same way he played baseball: with courage, immense dignity and resolve.

The correspondence also made me realize how little I knew about the last two years of Gehrig’s life. Who were the doctors who monitored his decline? What did they tell Gehrig and how did he process such heartbreaking news? Nearly all baseball fans have read and listened to Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech, which he delivered to fans at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939. Anyone who has seen the grace and poise he demonstrated on that day could infer he faced death in the same way. But being privy to Gehrig’s private thoughts hits differently. Details replace the space where his story was abstract.

The Luckiest Man on the Face of the earth stands stoic in fa Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

I wondered what Gehrig’s doctors were like. How did they deal with the challenge of helping Gehrig understand the cruel and awful way he would die? What did they know about the disease back then? Who were his doctors? Down the rabbit hole I went.

In trying to learn more about Gehrig’s team at the Mayo Clinic, I happened upon an article written by Frank Brennan, a palliative care specialist, that was published in The American Journal of Hospice & Palliative Care several years ago. Its abstract reads:

“The year 2011 marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Lou Gehrig. This article reviews his history, illness, relationship with his physicians, and what the modern physician can learn from his story. Lou Gehrig’s disease continues to be the popular eponym for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.”

The article offers lots of insight into Gehrig’s experience at The Mayo Clinic. Two pieces of information, in particular, stood out to me.

Before traveling to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, Gehrig had consulted with physicians in New York, who weren’t able to give him a clear diagnosis. That doctors in New York couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong with Gehrig isn’t surprising. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is notoriously difficult to diagnose, even today, in the year 2020. At the Mayo Clinic, Gehrig was first examined by Dr. Harold Habein, who made the diagnosis right away. At the time, Dr. Habein recounted that it wasn’t just his considerable clinical experience that helped him make the diagnosis, but his personal experience with the disease. Several years before meeting with Gehrig, Dr. Habein had watched his own mother succumb slowly to ALS. He had seen Gehrig’s symptoms before.

From Brennan’s journal article, I also learned that Gehrig’s doctors at The Mayo Clinic had written a letter for Gehrig to release to the press. In an attempt to describe his disease in layman’s terms, Gehrig’s doctors compared ALS symptomatology — the progressive muscle weakness and paralysis — to polio, a disease with which most people were familiar. This was a mistake, as the comparison to polio led to the widespread misconception that ALS was an infectious disease.

New York Daily News writer Jimmy Powers even speculated that Gehrig had spread ALS throughout New York’s clubhouse and to his teammates on the Yankees. According to Powers’ theory, a number of the Yankees had likely contracted polio from Gehrig, which explained the team’s mediocre performance in the first half of the 1940 season. (Gehrig and the Yankees angrily denied this accusation, and the former superstar sued the Daily News for libel before settling out of court for $17,500.)

Gehrig’s public disclosure of his illness was extremely uncommon at the time. However awful the irresponsible speculation about ALS was, Gehrig’s display of honesty and vulnerability surrounding his medical condition paved the way for other celebrities to speak openly about illness.