The First Female Celebrity to Embrace Parkinson's

The 1950s was not a time for open discussion of serious diseases—whether by celebrities or ordinary citizens. 
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[IMAGE DESCRIPTION]
Photographer Margaret Bourke White sails from New York City aboard the S.S. Washington to Europe to photograph World War II; Oct. 16, 1939 (AP)

Linda Ronstadt’s recent announcement that she has Parkinson’s disease and has retired from singing caught her fans by surprise. It was even more jarring over 40 years ago when another famous woman went public with similar news. In that case, it was Margaret Bourke-White, the renowned, globetrotting photojournalist for Life magazine.

Back in 1959, celebrity illness was mostly a private affair—especially when the disease was a debilitating and ultimately fatal one like Parkinson’s. Michael J. Fox had not yet even been born. Bourke-White’s decision to tell her story in the pages of Life was thus a heroic and altruistic one. Yet her candor produced complicated challenges that she struggled with for years. If Ronstadt continues to be open about her illness, she may encounter similar issues.

Bourke-White was born in 1904 and began to take photographs as at Columbia University. Her work caught the eye of magazine publisher Henry Luce, who hired her to work first for Fortune and then Life. Bourke-White’s photographs of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and, hours before his assassination, Mahatma Gandhi, became known across the world.

The first symptoms of Parkinson’s likely occurred in 1952 when the 48 year-old Bourke-White was covering the Korean War. But, like many patients, she ignored her symptoms. After all, she was “Maggie the Indestructible,” always in the right place at the right time. But when her stiff hands began to interfere with her ability to take photographs, she consulted a series of physicians. She probably was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1955. Bourke-White had the akinetic form of the disease, characterized more by stiffness and difficulty moving than by the familiar arm and leg tremors.

The 1950s was not a time for open discussion of serious diseases—whether by celebrities or ordinary citizens. Cancer, for example, was a hush-hush affair. In many instances, doctors even tried to conceal the diagnosis from their patients.

Patients were also reluctant to reveal the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, which caused increasing immobility, helplessness and, in some instances, a type of dementia. Seeking to counteract this trend, the National Parkinson Foundation was founded in 1957, but it was Bourke-White who took the disease out of the shadows.

“Famous Lady’s Indomitable Fight” was the title of the prominent article and photo spread that appeared in the June 22, 1959 issue of Life. Not only did Bourke-White reveal her diagnosis, but also that in January of that year she had undergone a controversial experimental operation to try to alleviate her symptoms. Chemothalamectomy involved drilling a hole in a patient’s skull and injecting alcohol onto a portion of the brain known as the thalamus. Damaging these cells, her neurosurgeon, Irving S. Cooper, believed, could dramatically improve her mobility. Why the operation seemed to work was unknown.

Bourke-White herself appeared in many of the photographs, taken by her good friend and colleague Alfred Eisenstaedt. Several showed her undergoing physical therapy after her surgery. In addition to her evident difficulty walking, the pictures also revealed another characteristic of Parkinson’s—an expressionless face, known as “masked facies.”

Considering that she was among the first celebrity patients, Bourke-White did an exemplary job. Readily terming herself a “guinea pig,” she carefully indicated that the value of chemothalamectomy was still unclear and that it might even cause harm.  

But Bourke-White’s excitement about the operation was palpable. “Well-meaning people frequently advise that you must learn to accept your illness,” she wrote. “My conviction was just the opposite.” Bourke-White analogized her surgery to other recent medical breakthroughs, such as penicillin and the polio vaccine. Her tall, blond surgeon, she enthused, looked “a little like a Greek God.” 

This fervor reverberated with Parkinson’s patients who read her article or saw a made-for-television play about her life that aired in January 1960. Bourke-White received hundreds of letters from people asking how to contact Cooper or otherwise praising her courage. Typical was one that stated that “The doctors here say there is no cure, but your story made me believe there is some help and hope.”

The problem, however, was that Bourke-White’s early positive assessment of her surgery was premature. Although she seemed to get better for a while, by 1960 her disease had worsened and she was forced to retire from her beloved occupation. As a last-ditch effort, Bourke-White underwent surgery on the other side of her brain in 1961, but it was clearly ineffective. She tried pills but continued to deteriorate until her death in 1971. By that point, chemothalamectomy had been abandoned.

Margaret Bourke-White’s story reminds us of the benefits and pitfalls of celebrity illnesses. Her openness made public a previously private topic, but she made some questionable medical decisions, some of which her fans too readily emulated.

It is not known how much more Linda Ronstadt will say about her illness or whether she will pursue new invasive procedures, such as deep brain stimulation. But Parkinson’s patients and their families should recall just what Ronstadt’s story is: the story of one specific patient struggling with her disease.

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Barron H. Lerner, MD, is a professor of medicine and population health at New York University School of Medicine. He is the author of five books, including The Breast Cancer Wars, One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 and The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics.

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