Gehrig's celebrity pushed ALS to forefront

No disease has become as synonymous with one of its victims as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The victim was Lou Gehrig.

ALS is a neurodegenerative disease affecting motor nerves. It results in muscle wasting, weakness and eventual paralysis of all voluntary muscles. It is a fatal disease with the inability to breathe being the typical cause of death. Although it can strike at any age, most victims are between the ages of 40 and 70 years old.

Lou Gehrig was a Hall of Fame, major league baseball player with the New York Yankees from 1923 to 1939. Nicknamed the “Iron Horse” after playing in 2,130 consecutive games, his career is chronicled in the 1942 movie, “Pride of the Yankees.”

Dr. Eric Sorensen is a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic who specializes in ALS. He recently presented data that tracked Gehrig’s batting average over the 1936, 1937 and 1938 baseball seasons. Based on this graphic representation, it is apparent that his athletic performance was significantly worse in the spring of 1938 and dropped off dramatically ten weeks into the season. He retired on April 30, 1939.

In 1940, Lou Gehrig volunteered to participate in an experimental study using vitamin E to treat ALS. While initial results were believed to be promising, subsequent analysis did not show any benefit. Gehrig died June 2, 1941, at the age of 37.

There is speculation that Lou Gehrig never had ALS and instead suffered from cervical spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that eventually crushes the spinal cord. The Mayo Clinic maintains a policy of strict confidentiality and despite frequent inquiries, Gehrig’s medical records are secured in a vault where not even Mayo Clinic physicians have access.

While this controversy may never be resolved, it is evident that no other celebrity labeling of a disease has ever made more impact on the awareness and research efforts than we have seen with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. To contact Dr. Alessi, e-mail him at To purchase his recently published book, “Healthy Sports: A Doctor’s Lessons for a Winning Lifestyle,” visit

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