Five inspirational people with Parkinson's

At La Trobe, we’re working on early diagnosis and early treatment for Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition. There’s no known cure, but a person with Parkinson’s can lead a full and productive life and with early diagnosis, the outcome could look brighter. Meet five people with Parkinson’s who have led inspirational lives.

Muhammad Ali

Ali, known far and wide as ‘The Greatest’, was a world champion in and out of the ring. He was well-known for taking a stand long before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He famously refused to enter the Vietnam draft, and he was sentenced to jail because of it.

Ali began showing signs of Parkinson’s just before he retired from boxing in 1981. A few years later, he was formally diagnosed at the age of 42.

The commonly held belief is that Ali developed Parkinson’s after repeated blows to the head from boxing.

Whatever the cause, Ali switched gears, dedicating his life to humanitarian causes. He became an international ambassador for peace and supported multiple causes, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Special Olympics and the annual Celebrity Fight Night, which generates funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer. More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.’

Michael J. Fox

Fox got his break playing young conservative Alex P. Keaton in beloved 80s sitcom, Family Ties. However, his best-known character is time-travelling teenager, Marty McFly, from the Back to the Future trilogy.

During filming of the 1991 film, Doc Hollywood, Fox began to notice the initial symptoms of Parkinson’s. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Young Onset Parkinson’s disease at the age of 30.

In his book, Lucky Man, Fox said he went through a period of denial, self-medicating with alcohol. Several years later, he sobered up and chose to go public, establishing the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. He has become one of the most active and well-known advocates for those living with Parkinson's.

Ali himself reached out after learning of Fox’s diagnosis. ‘He didn't say much,’ according to Fox. He just said, “With you in this fight, we can win.” I cried.’

Brian Grant

Grant was a former power forward who played for five NBA teams during his 12-year career. At six foot nine inches, he held his own against the likes of Shaquille O'Neal and Dennis Rodman.

In 2008, aged 37, Grant announced he had early-onset Parkinson's, three years after retiring from basketball.

A phone call from Fox changed Grant’s outlook on living with Parkinson’s. Grant was impressed by Fox’s courageous and optimistic outlook – and his honesty. Fox reminded him that if he does go public, ‘it becomes a requirement to be there for the public and be a spokesperson and advocate to get the information to the people’.

Grant accepted the challenge, and began The Brian Grant Foundation, which partners with The Michael J. Fox Foundation and the Muhammed Ali Parkinson Center to fund research and develop improved therapies. Grant said, ‘I wanted to provide a place for people to come and know that they’re not alone, that it’s not a death sentence, and that you can live a normal life.’

Billy Connolly

Connolly, the Scottish comedian and actor, looked to Fox for inspiration after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2013. The news came only weeks after undergoing successful surgery for prostate cancer.

Known more for his classic stand-up comedies, TV documentaries and movie roles, Connolly started off as a welder. He worked eight years in a shipyard, before picking up the banjo and forging a moderately successful career in folk-pop duo The Humblebums, alongside Gerry Rafferty.

Unfortunately, restricted movement in his left arm means he’s put the banjo down for good. However, at the age of 73, he still tours the world performing stand-up and, in typical Connolly fashion, makes light of his condition.

His blue-collar beginnings probably informed his down-to-earth philosophy. As he said: ‘Maybe some people get grim, but I don’t. You cannot sit at home wondering about your symptoms. It is not going to go away. I think it is an attitude – you say, “Screw it, let’s get on with it”.’

Janet Reno

Reno was the first female U.S. attorney general, serving throughout the Clinton era. Two years into her term, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, but continued with President Clinton’s support.

After her tenure, she unsuccessfully challenged Jeb Bush for governorship of Florida, but refused to slow down. She toured the country and spoke passionately about public service, civil rights, education and other issues.

She was determined to remain active after her diagnosis. ‘I think the more you can remain involved,’ she said, ‘and the more you can be active mentally and physically, the better you can respond to this disease.’

While Reno now mostly shuns the spotlight, she guest starred as herself in The Simpsons, presiding in a trial where Bart Simpson was the defendant.

Early diagnosis of Parkinson’s: this is what we’re working on

La Trobe University researchers, with the aid of the Michael J. Fox Foundation and their Australian funding partner, Shake It Up Australia Foundation, are working on the development of a diagnostic blood test.

If all goes well, the test could enable doctors to detect, with unprecedented reliability, the abnormal metabolism of blood cells in people with Parkinson's. This would mean treatment options could be provided much earlier.

Read our interview with lead researcher, Professor Paul Fisher.

See yourself learning about the impact of disease on the human body. Enrol in our Bachelor of Biomedical Science.

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