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When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine 1st Edition

8 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0801884627
ISBN-10: 0801884624
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Today it's commonplace for Carnie Wilson to chat about her gastric bypass surgery on talk shows or Sally Field to hype a drug by talking about her osteoporosis. Celebrities yapping about what ails them wasn't always common, however, and Lerner believes that its prevalence now indicates cultural changes worth noting. Celebs have come to receive groundbreaking interventions previously -unknown to the general public, whether those consist of antibiotics, as in the case of Franklin Roosevelt Jr., or technological inventions, such as Barney Clark's artificial heart, and to introduce them to the general public, causing thousands to then seek the new treatment. They also create connections to fellow sufferers who identify with and may be inspired by how a celebrity handles the same affliction. Benefits aside, Lerner cautions that there can be considerable drawbacks. After actor Steve McQueen chose alternative cancer treatments in Mexico, thousands flocked over the border seeking similar therapies and encountered similar failure. Others whose stories Lerner retells for his insightful analysis include athletes Jim Piersall and Arthur Ashe. Donna Chavez
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


In dissecting the illnesses of these famous people, Dr. Lerner brilliantly separates science from the mythologized, bravely battling celebrity. Riveting reading.

(Lynn Redgrave and Annabel Clark, authors of Journal: A Mother and Daughter's Recovery from Breast Cancer)

It's odd: When a celebrity falls ill, the illness becomes a celebrity, and public life democratized is made generally useful. Barron Lerner has created a fascinating book of this original observation.

(Roger Rosenblatt)

Celebrities yapping about what ails them wasn't always common, however, and Lerner believes that its prevalence now indicates cultural changes worth noting... Insightful analysis.


A readable and thoroughly researched book. (Rated four stars: Excellent)

(British Medical Journal)

Lerner has created a powerful prism through his thoughtful exploration of celebrity illness, highlighting societal and cultural forces that widely affect public and private health care decisions... Lerner's skills are superbly demonstrated in detailing complicated stories... fascinating analysis.


Lerner offers a superb volume rich with thorough and entertaining recollections and other information not previously in the public domain... A clear, concise, and captivating treatise that holds the interest of lay readers and yet illuminates for medical professionals issues that are important to the individual patient as well as the scientific community.

(Journal of Clinical Investigation)

Lerner has done a beautiful job of tracing the degree to which celebrity patients have reflected and shaped the modern American understanding of doctors, patients, and illness. This book is a pleasure to read because of its compelling storytelling and analysis.

(New England Journal of Medicine)

Physician and associate professor Lerner is blessed with the ability to research widely and write lucidly... Well documented and indexed, this highly readable book deserves a broad audience.


Interesting book, and the writing is sprightly.

(Roxanna Stein RALPH: Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities)

Engaging and intriguing... Can be enjoyed by a broad public interested in the modern intertwining of the concerns of celebrity and health.

(Steven Epstein Isis)

When Illness Goes Public says much about the development of ideas of illness in American culture.

(Jasmine Gartner Social History of Medicine)

Compelling... We can learn quite a bit about our society, culture, and values from the way celebrities' illnesses are publicly portrayed. As Lerner perceptively demonstrates, descriptions of illness and death ultimately have as much to do with how people want to imagine these experiences as with actual events... Lerner is at his best when he uses his considerable narrative skills to place these stories into their broader historical, cultural and ethical contexts.

(Michael J. Green American Journal of Bioethics)

In Lerner’s capable hands, these dozen stories in their retelling are both colorfully dramatic narratives, ripped from the headlines (as the saying now goes) and also probing samples of historically specific contingencies and shifting attitudes.

(Chris Feudtner Bulletin of the History of Medicine)

These 12 stories... delight and instruct readers about our own health and eventual mortality, and these are important things to know.

(John C. Bailar, III Perspectives in Biology and Medicine)

Well-written, professionally documented.

(Robert S. Robins Journal of American History)

A major contribution to our understanding of health and illness.

(Abstracts of Public Administration, Development and Environment)

When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine includes a great many references and keeps the reader engaged and entertained. This easily readable book will satisfy any reader's desire to learn more about famous people who have made a difference in how medicine and disease is handled in the U.S.... A great read.

(Fahmida Hussain Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1 edition (November 20, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801884624
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801884627
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,322,267 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Barron H. Lerner is a Professor of Medicine and Population Health at the New York University School of Medicine. Dr. Lerner received his M.D. in 1986 and his Ph.D. in history in 1996. His book, The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, published by Oxford University Press, received the William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine and was named one of the 26 most notable books of 2001 by the American Library Association. Dr. Lerner has published extensively in scholarly journals and contributes essays to the the Science Times section of The New York Times, the Times' "Well" blog, Slate, and the Huffington Post. He has also appeared on numerous NPR broadcasts, including "Fresh Air," "All Things Considered" and "Science Friday." Dr. Lerner's latest book, "The Good Doctor: A Father, A Son and the Evolution of Medical Ethics," was published by Beacon Press in May 2014. You can follow Dr. Lerner at or @barronlerner on Twitter.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Lewis P. Rowland MD on November 22, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Barron Lerner uses 12 case histories to tell how public attitudes affected medicine. When Lou Gehrig developed the lethal ALS, his doctors "protected" him by never telling him the diagnosis or what was going to happen to him. 20 years later the renowned LIFE photographer was diagnosed with Parkinson disease but did not know for 2 years because the information was witheld from her. As the years went by, however, celebrity patients became advocates for research and patient care on behalf of other people with the disease. Some, like Gehrig and Bourke-White were already celebrities when they became ill. Other's became celebrities by virtue of the illness, including Lorenzo Odone (of the film "Lorenzo's Oil"). By pulicizing the long hours of hospital call for sleep-deprived doctors-in-training, the case of Libby Zion changed residency training throough the US. Lerner is a master story teller, and shows how the cases changed the public from subservience to independence and activism.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Paul A. Lombardo on December 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
In a culture where movie stars and politicians post their drug rehabilitation schedules online, we have almost completely forgotten that until a short while ago many diseases were not discussed in public, even by the most celebrated citizens. Barron Lerner's new book reminds us that the tell--all habits of the rich and famous are a recent development, and we learn how the process started to open up more than sixty-five years ago with baseball star Lou Gehrig. It took an announcement that the Gerhig had a rare disease to explain how his legendary streak of consecutive games was broken. Now many people who never went to a baseball game know "Lou Gerhig's disease" because of Yankee Iron Man's willingness to go public. Lerner is unusual, since he was trained as a both an historian and a physican, and that makes this book even more rare: an extremely readable piece of medical history written clearly enough to be of interest--not just to doctors and academics, but to just about anyone who has an interest in Lerner's cast of characters and the maladies they endured.

One of my favorites in the book is Jimmy Pearsall, another man who became a baseball legend, less for his athletic performances than his bizarre antics between plays and off the field. Lerner explains how bipolar disorder was Pearsall's demon. Another completely new story involves the experimental treatment for Parkinson's disease the famous photographer Margaret Bourke White pursued. Arthur Ashe's AIDS, Steve McQueen's cancer and Rita Hayworth's Alzheimers all take up chapters in this book, which is like all of Lerner's work, painstakingly researched and engagingly written. The celebrities in this book are fortunate to have someone of Lerner's skill and compassion tell the stories of their illness.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By betty edwards on November 10, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Barron Lerner's book is fascinating and insightful. Lerner is a wonderful writer. I was hooked from the beginning as I read the Lou Gherig story, which I thought I knew , but I didn't.

Each story carries the reader along and provides insights into our culture that are important for us all to know.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By J. Hicks on December 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a thoughtful and well researched book. It is far from an exploitive tell all about celebrity deaths. Rather, it uses key well-known personalities to illuminate the evolution of public and media driven medical thought. How does public perception of disease and medicine change over time? Our understandings (and misunderstandings) of medical issues have been affected by the foibles and treatment of celebrities, to the point where they are now "experts." Sadly, the book discusses the self education behind Lorenzo's Oil, a wholehearted attempt by parents of a child affected by an orphan disease to stimulate research and development. I wonder what the author would say now about "experts" like Jenny McCarthy and Tom Cruise, whose evidence is either missing or negligent.
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