“Luckiest man on the face of the earth”

February 8, 2011


There’s a hilarious string of comments on the MSNBC web site stemming from a story about Lou Gehrig’s medical records. It’s entertaining to read these strings, because the readers who engage in them get upset and abusive – in this case, two of them sunk to assailing each other’s grammar – and then they get off on tangents and eventually go spinning off into space.

In this case, the brief story that started the row was about Phyllis Kahn, a member of the Minnesota State Legislature, who has introduced a bill that would open medical records after a person has been dead for 50 years, unless a will or a legal action by a descendant precludes it.

Kahn was inspired by a story that broke several months ago about a scientific study that speculated that the root cause of Gehrig’s death was concussions he suffered while playing baseball. Gehrig’s ailment, of course, was diagnosed as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.


A study published last summer in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology made a connection between brain trauma and a form of ALS. Gehrig played first base, a position not usually associated with concussions, but he was hit in the head by pitches during his career, and he might have suffered head traumas in when he was the runner in a close play. He famously played for 14 years without missing a game, which means he played hurt many many times. In fact, although he is lionized for setting a record for consecutive games that stood until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed it, Gehrig was criticized in some quarters in his own time by folks who regarded his streak as a foolish stunt and worried that he would damage his health.

Researchers want to look at Gehrig’s medical records, which are housed at the Mayo Clinic, and Kahn thinks they should be allowed to do so – and that, in the absence of instructions to the contrary, the records of any person dead for 50 years should be accessible. Gehrig has no descendants


As a Lou Gehrig fan, my emotions are screaming, “Leave the big guy alone!” As a former journalist, my interest in free flow of information is muttering that such records should become available at some point — though I don’t know what that point should be. Considering the level of concern about concussion injuries in football, research in this area could be valuable, and Gehrig might have provided an almost unparalleled  opportunity to examine the impact of repeated injuries. His doctors might even have considered a link between his grueling career and the illness that killed him. The Mayo Clinic and a bioethics professor at the University of Minnesota are opposing this bill, probably concerned more about the opening of a flood gate than about Gehrig’s privacy in particular.

Incidentally, Phyllis Kahn, a Democrat-Farm-Labor legislator, once pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing campaign brochures distributed on behalf of a Republican candidate and replacing them with material for one of Kahn’s DFL compatriots. But that’s a story for another post.


3 Responses to ““Luckiest man on the face of the earth””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    You’re right about the comments. My cat’s giving me the eye, wondering why I’m sitting here all by myself, laughing away.

    This may be a multi-sport bandwagon Ms. Kahn’s trying to leap onto. The January 31 issue of The New Yorker Magazine has an article by Ben McGrath entitled, “Does Football Have a Future? The NFL and the Concussion Crisis”.
    A Lou Gehrig concussion history might be of use to folks playing on a different field.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I have heard several reports on NPR about pressure on the NFL to do more to avoid concussions. I’m not a football fan, but apparently there is a lot of pushback from those who are fans and who like the “big hit” aspect of the game. Some former NFL players have in later life developed serious health problems that some attribute to the number of concussions they suffered playing the game. There also is a lot of buzz about scholastic football coaches who don’t keep players out of the game after they are shaken up in a collision.

      Thanks for the link on Chuck Close. I wasn’t familiar with him. That thumbprint portrait is remarkable. Incidentally, if you’re interested in knowing more about Dr. Sacks, the movie “Awakenings” is a pretty faithful account of his work with victims of an encephalitis epidemic and his book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” is a collection of fascinating case studies.

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    I’m not sure if it’s possible to rate illnesses on a scale according to degree of horror, but if it were, ALS would surely be close to the top. With all due respect to the privacy issue, if opening up Gehrig’s medical records can help researchers get a better handle on this disease, I think they should do it.

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