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Erich Segal: Parkinson's Disease

Erich Segal was on the track team with me at Harvard and ran the Boston Marathon with me several times.  Both of us were mediocre runners trying to prove ourselves. A line in one of his novels, The Class, described both of us: "Fear of death is universal. But what lies beneath that fear is the terror of insignificance. Of not being remembered, not counting."

At age 33, he wrote his best-known novel, Love Story, that sold more than 21 million copies, was the top selling work of fiction for 1970 in the United States and has been translated into more than 33 languages.  He wrote the screenplay for the movie of the same name, starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, that was the top box office attraction of 1970 and gained him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.  The film grossed nearly $200 million and received seven Academy Award nominations.  Just about everyone remembers "Love means never having to say you’re sorry," which is number 13 in the American Film Institute's list of 100 Movie Quotes.  Segal  said, "The reason people cried over Love Story is because I did.  I was innocent. I believed every word I wrote." 

Early Life, Education and Academic Career
He was born in 1937, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a rabbi, and studied Hebrew, German, French, Latin and Greek.  At Harvard he was the class poet and the Latin Salutatory Orator.  He received his masters and doctoral degrees at Harvard also. He published some outstanding scholarly books on the Greek tragedian Euripides and the comic Roman playwright Plautus and was offered a professorship at Yale where he had the largest class in the school, with more than 600 students enrolled.  

In an Ivy-League school, a professor has only a few years to gain tenure or permanent appointment.  If he does not get tenure, he has to leave. Erich was distraught that Yale did not give him tenure in 1972 and he was convinced that he was denied tenure  because of his fame from his popular novel and movies. He went on to teach Greek and Latin literature at University of Munich, Princeton, Tel Aviv, Dartmouth and Oxford University. 

The Boston Marathon
He became obsessed with running in high school and, like me, ran on the Harvard track team because everyone who came out for the team got a uniform.  Like me, he ran in the Boston marathon because neither of us was fast enough to run in the major meets. He ran in 20 consecutive Boston Marathons.  When he met famed novelist Philip Roth, he told him, "I admire your work." Roth replied, "I admire your running."  Both of us spent our lives trying to run every day, but in the 1980s Parkinson's disease prevented him from running and chronic recurrent running injuries forced me to switch to racing on a bike, which I still do today. 

The Story of Love Story
Love Story tells of Oliver Barrett, a wealthy WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) from an old-New-England family and a star hockey player at Harvard, who meets Jennifer, a Radcliffe (now Harvard) student and the only child of a poor widowed baker.   Oliver cannot believe that this poor student has never heard of him, the famous Harvard athlete.  They fall in love and Oliver takes Jenny to meet his father, who tells Oliver that if he marries her, he will be cut off from the family fortune. Oliver has always had a strained relationship with his father and decides to defy him to marry Jenny.  With his allowance cut off, they struggle to live on her meager teaching salary while he goes to law school.  After law school, he accepts a high-paying job with a law firm in New York City and they decide to have a baby. She finds out that she can't get pregnant because she has leukemia, which at that time was incurable.  As Oliver leaves the hospital after his wife's death, his father hugs his son for the first time since Oliver was a child.

The Real Jenny in Erich Segal's Life
When Erich Segal was in high school, he saw Janet Sussman in the school hallway and fell in love with her.  She was the daughter of educated Russian-Polish immigrants, was very smart and like Segal, was solidly Jewish.  She started to receive  love letters from Segal that continued for 16 years. She had never even spoken to him before the letters started to arrive and never dated him, but he kept on writing.  She went to Barnard College (now part of Columbia), majored in music and French, played the piano and even composed some musical pieces.  In 1960, Segal followed Janet to Paris where she was staying with her sister. He certainly was persistent.  He eventually met her parents and spoke Russian with her father, Polish to her mother, and Yiddish to her grandmother, but Janet was not impressed.  In 1961, she married a man who had gone to their same high school.  Erich saw the wedding announcement in the paper and wrote Janet a letter to congratulate her. Still his letters kept coming.

Erich had become a professor of Greek and Latin literature at Yale and had also written screenplays for several movies.  In 1969, in the middle of the night, he called Janet to tell her that he had written a  love letter to her and it was more than a hundred pages long.  It was the book, Love Story. It didn't matter to Erich that she now was a married woman, had three children and her husband was the founder of the Gartner Group, the first of his several successful companies that established him as a pioneer in information technology.  The next year, Segal invited her to come to the premier of  the film version of Love Story and she accepted.  After 17 years of marriage, Janet divorced her husband and has never remarried.

In 1998, Segal told reporters that the hero of Love Story, Oliver Barrett IV, was inspired by two Harvard students, actor Tommy Lee Jones and former vice president Al Gore, who was the son of a US senator. Gore was an outstanding football player and captain of his high school football team at the prestigious prep school,  St Albans, in Washington, D.C. He had married his wife, Tipper, while they were in college, so some people thought that Tipper was the model for Jenny.  However, in a later interview Segal acknowledged that Janet Sussman, not Tipper Gore, was the inspiration for his heroine.  He told the writer,  “When you lose the woman you love, it is over for you, whether she leaves you for another man, or she dies. You are still alone. It was at this point that I started thinking about Love Story. That's why in the book, Jennifer dies, because for me she had died.”

Erich Segal's True Love
In 1974, when he was 37, he met Karen James in London. She was a children's book editor who was married but separated from her husband. For the next month after Segal returned to the United States, he sent daily letters and made daily phone calls.  He then flew back to England and refused to leave until she accepted his proposal of marriage.  It worked. She divorced her husband in Reno and married Segal.  He said that Love Story had caused a "bad case of hyper-success that traumatized me and she straightened out my life."  She helped him finish a sequel to Love Story called Oliver's Story, and several other books that followed.  They had two daughters and remained married until his death 34 years later. 

He never repeated his success with Love Story, but he did write 44 books including other best sellers such as  Oliver's Story (1977), Man, Woman and Child (1983), The Class (1985) and Doctors (1987). In 1988, he told reporters: "When I find myself feeling guilty for all that success and thinking Love Story was overrated, I pull out my Encyclopedia Britannica and see myself listed as writing in the tradition of the classic sentimental novelists, and then my ego relights."

Parkinson's Disease
Segal’s lifestyle was exemplary.  He ran more than 40 marathons, ate a healthful diet, was never overweight, never smoked, drank alcohol sparingly and was not promiscuous.  However, he developed Parkinson's disease when he was In his 40’s, which was the most likely explanation for the heart attack that caused his death at the young age of 72. 

More than a million North Americans suffer from Parkinson's disease in which nerve cells don't produce enough of a chemical called dopamine.  It usually starts after age 50 and causes progressive shaking, stiffness and slow movement, depression and difficulties with memory and thought processes. The face may show little expression, the arms stop swinging as the person walks and speech may become slurred.  The symptoms worsen as the disease progresses. Symptoms include trembling, stiffness, slowness of movement, poor balance and coordination, difficulty walking, talking, chewing, swallowing, or speaking or doing simple tasks, depression, sleep problems, and dizziness on standing up.

Parkinson's disease does not appear to be hereditary and it often strikes people who have no apparent risk factors.  A leading theory is that it is caused by lack of a chemical called mitofusin 2 necessary for normal function of  mitochondria that turn food into energy (Science. April 26, 2013). Parkinson's disease patients frequently die of heart failure because both the brain and heart require the most energy, so damage to the mitochondria causes both the brain damage and the death from heart failure in Parkinson's patients.

There is no cure for Parkinson’s disease at this time. Current treatments try to control symptoms and improve quality of life.
• Medications: Parkinson’s disease symptoms are caused by a deficiency of the brain chemical dopamine, so the main drug treatments raise brain levels of dopamine, but so far all of the drugs lose effect as they continue to be used.
• Physical therapy
• Deep brain stimulation implants stimulate the brain with intermittent electrical shocks
• T'ai Chi may help to improve balance
• Exercise devices such as a tandem bicycle, which allow the patient's muscles to be moved by someone else, can help to improve coordination.

At Segal's funeral his daughter Francesca said, "That he fought to breathe, fought to live, every second of the last 30 years of illness with such mind-blowing obduracy, is a testament to the core of who he was—a blind obsessionality that saw him pursue his teaching, his writing, his running and my mother, with just the same tenacity. He was the most dogged man any of us will ever know."

Erich Wolf Segal
June 16, 1937 – January 17, 2010

What is a Latin Salutatory Orator?
There were no iPhone cameras running when Erich Segal gave his Latin oratory in 1958; the video above is from 2007. The tradition of Latin speakers at Harvard graduations dates back more than 350 years, when the entire ceremony was conducted in Latin. Now the Latin Orator is selected based on the humor of the topic and skill in its delivery. The oratory shown here is about Star Wars; the audience follows along from a translation in the program. I was there for my 50th reunion and to see my son, Kenneth Mirkin, graduate in the Class of 2007.;

January 24th, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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