Some 80 years ago, a muscular kid from a working class neighborhood in New York dove into the choppy waters of the Hudson River and swam all the way across to New Jersey. As a reward, the foolhardy youngster got his ears boxed by his father. The kid was Lou Gehrig.
Today, just a few streets away at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Gehrig's name and that of his wife are enshrined at The Eleanor and Lou Gehrig MDA/ALS Center, one of more than 40 MDA centers dedicated to ALS research and care.
Everyone knows that Lou, the great "Iron Horse" of baseball, had ALS. But why was his wife's name placed in honor above his? The answer is part of MDA history.
After Gehrig learned he had ALS and retired from the New York Yankees in 1939, ending his record streak of 2,130 consecutive games played, Eleanor was his chauffeur, nurse, nutritionist and constant companion. She exercised with him, steadied his fingers when he signed his name, and helped him take his daily injections of vitamin E.
So high was the Gehrigs' faith in vitamin E that Eleanor used to prepare a special salad for Lou made with common garden grass that she cut from the park because she was told it was rich with the vitamin. Even with salad dressing, the concoction made Gehrig gag. It didn't stop the progression, and in 1941, Lou Gehrig lost his life to ALS.
"After what happened to Lou, I was heartsick and wanted somehow to strike back," Eleanor said years later. "I felt that Lou would have wanted me to help others. But I realized that medical science hadn't really made a start in studying disorders of the neuromuscular system. Medical men generally deemed such diseases incurable."
In the early 1950s, Eleanor heard that a new organization called the Muscular Dystrophy Association was being formed to combat neuromuscular diseases. "I saw that here was the answer to my personal need — people whose thirst for action was as deep as my own. I immediately offered my services."
With Eleanor's help, MDA was to become and remain one of the world's leading private research organizations and service providers for those with ALS.
Eleanor served as MDA's national campaign chairman during crucial formative years in the 1950s and 1960s. The late Robert Ross, former MDA president and CEO, accompanied her as she traveled the country giving speeches and interviews, and telling people like first lady Mamie Eisenhower about the agency's mission.
Eleanor assisted in chapter development, recruited volunteers — including many celebrities —and persuaded radio and television program sponsors to give free publicity to MDA's annual fundraising campaign. She was an MDA corporate member from 1955 through 1964.
In her later years, Eleanor had many friends, including the late wife of MDA Chairman of the Board R. Rodney Howell, M.D., Sarah E. Howell. Sarah, a doctor herself, had an abiding connection to the Gehrigs. Her father, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, had been Lou's personal physician during his years fighting ALS.
Sarah, only weeks before her death in 1993, placed the inscription shown below in a copy she gave to MDA's Ross of a Lou Gehrig biography co-authored by Mrs. Gehrig. The insertion describes Sarah's vivid childhood memory of seeing the Iron Horse in the flesh: