Monthly Archives: January 2021

Who Was Lou Gehrig?

'Eponymous' is a fancy word that means named after people. Food (eggs benedict), cars (Chrysler) and cities (Washington) are frequently named after people. But by far the most common use of eponyms is in science and specifically medicine. Diseases, for example, are usually named after the doctor or scientist who discovered the condition. Anois Alzheimer was a psychiatrist, James Parkinson was a physician, Gilles de la Tourette was a neurologist.

There are literally thousands of people whose names have become a medical term. This most likely has to do with the desire to simplify complex scientific names as well as showing recognition for ground-breaking scientific achievements.

But not always.

There are a few examples of diseases named after someone who actually suffered from that disease. By far, the most famous is Lou Gehrig. While it's unlikely that any North American male over the age of 40 has not heard of Lou Gehrig, many people don't have a true appreciation of who he was and why his name came to be associated with the disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Lou Gehrig was a rare combination of extraordinary performer and beautiful human being. He played baseball for the New York Yankees in the 20's and 30's. He was an extremely talented player who is currently the 10th best hitter in baseball. He set hitting records that stand to this day. But his most famous accomplishment was a consecutive game appearance record of 2,130 games over 15 seasons - a record that stood until the mid-90's. He was also the team captain and a player of such nobility of character that he was the idol of every young boy. As one writer said "There was no reason to dislike him. And nobody did."

Lou Gehrig was known as the Iron Horse because of his streak. This is profoundly tragic in retrospect, because of the rapid decline of his baseball skills and body when he was diagnosed in 1939 with ALS. He retired from baseball immediately and died only two years later.

The interesting question is why the disease became known by his name. Part of the reason may simply be that it didn't enter the national consciousness until his diagnosis, but this still doesn't completely answer the question. Even though amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a bit of a mouthful, why couldn't have been simply called ALS?

The answer may lie in Lou Gehrig's profile and character. He approached his disease, as he approached everything in life, with courage and grace. The most outstanding example of this is his farewell speech made a few weeks after his diagnosis and retirement on July 4, 1939 at the Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day in Yankee Stadium.

Following a series of gifts, awards and speeches, the crowd of 61,808 fans went quiet as he slowly, and with apparent difficulty, approached the microphone. Although slurred speech is often characteristic of ALS sufferers, Lou spoke clearly, with no notes. His speech is regarded by many as one of the great speeches of the 20th Century. Eloquent in its simplicity, he expressed a sentiment that is a beacon to other ALS sufferers and, indeed, anyone faced with sudden adversity. The most famous portion of the speech was as follows:

"Fans, for the past few weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. ... So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I've got an awful lot to live for. Thank you."

[Recordings of this speech are easily found on YouTube]

Following this speech there was a two minute ovation, with not a dry eye in the house. Author Wilfrid Sheed wrote that "all present in Yankee Stadium that day had been given a license to love a fellow human to the limit, without qualification, and to root for that person as they'd never rooted for themselves."

He lived his next two years as fully as possible, including working for the New York City Parole Board.

He wrote "Don't think I am depressed or pessimistic about my condition at present. I intend to hold on as long as possible and then if the inevitable occurs, I will accept it philosophically and hope for the best. That's all we can do."

ALS is one of the most tragic of conditions because while the body deteriorates progressively, the mind is still aware and sharp. Many of our Qualicare home care franchises have clients (and families) dealing with ALS. Everyone associated with this disease should hold out Lou Gehrig at the top of the batting order for pure inspiration.