"Some research would never have taken place, and some medical breakthroughs would not have been possible without celebrities being affected somehow," Weldowhether said. "No source of information or authority spurs people to action as effectively."
One of Weldowhether's primary examples is Ryan White, a teen from Indiana who died of AIDS at age 18. White was a hemophiliac who became infected with HIV from a contaminated blood treatment. In December 1984, the doctors who diagnosed White gave him six months to live. Surprisingly, he made it five more years.
"Before Ryan White, HIV and AIDS were diseases you got from monkeys, filthy rapists in African tribes, and just about every openly gay man you passed on the street," Weldowhether said. "Ryan demonstrated that the virus could be spread by means other than sex, and that it didn't just plague the gay community -- an unfortunate misconception brought about by the cases of Liberace and Rock Hudson."
Ryan White initially drew national attention when a lengthy legal battle ensued after his school refused to allow him on campus because of worries about his condition. Of course, had celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson, and Phil Donahue not taken up White's cause and appeared with him frequently in the media, he would have faded into obscurity following the lawsuit, according to the predictive outcome models Weldowhether uses in his studies.
"Without Ryan White, most Americans still wouldn't know anything about AIDS," Weldowhether said. "Sure, it's likely that kids no farther than two miles from your home are dying of AIDS or cancer or some other awful disease, but you don't know them. You avoid them on the street when they pass by -- emaciated, drawn, wheelchair bound, and wheezing through an oxygen hose dangling from their nostrils. They make you uncomfortable. You do your best not to stare at them or ask about their conditions. Or even wish them a good day. You'll shed no tear when they die. But if a celebrity has been stricken with an illness or just has something to say about it, you're on the phone, you're on Facebook, you're donating money and buying t-shirts; because you've invested more emotionally in these celebrities than the folks living across the street."
"And without the support of famous personalities," Weldowhether added, "nobody would've paid much attention to the boring legal issues and complicated medical story of a tainted blood transfusion received by a boy we had no real connection with, from a place called Kokomo, Indiana, which none of us had ever heard of before. Elton John, Donahue, and Jacko -- all of them controversial, all of them derided for their outlandish and scandalous behavior -- are nevertheless responsible for influencing Congress' passage of the Ryan White Care Act."
For Dr. Weldowhether, actor Michael J. Fox provides another stirring example.
"Michael J. Fox was already instrumental in bringing obscure causes to the attention of American audiences," Weldowhether noted. "Before 'Family Ties,' most Americans knew virtually nothing about Canada. To them, it was a snowy, desolate wasteland full of drunk Cajun lumberjacks, deformed bacon, and mentally retarded hockey players. But Michael, a proud Canadian, did more to educate Americans on the wonders of that country than the U.S. government's actual ambassador...or SCTV. More importantly, without Fox, Parkinson's disease would have remained a grossly misunderstood condition whose sole side effect, in most people's minds, was a harmless tic that made Katharine Hepburn talk funny."
Weldowhether plans to publish a lengthy book this fall that details the pivotal roles celebrities have played in bettering the world. The working title is "You Really Don't Know Jack...Until Someone Like Jack Nicholson Endorses It."
Some highlights among the book's hundreds of case studies follow.
- Anorexia Nervosa: Karen Carpenter discovers a disease that proves extreme dieting and poor body image are not always the byproducts of daddy issues and agents.
- Alzheimer's: Ronald Reagan's diagnosis helped clarify that the president's confusingly positive outlook about disastrous economic and foreign policies was the result of a degenerative neurological disorder and not merely denial, disingenuousness, or ignorance. More importantly, it's led to ongoing research about the disorder's potential to infect others. As examples, scientists cited Nancy Reagan's about-face in demanding greater focus on stem cell research and the current GOP's inability to recollect anything that took place during Reagan's term with any measure of accuracy.
- Africa's a Continent, and It's Got Trouble: Despite a well-documented history of conflict and conquest, racial inequality, political unrest, near genocides in Rwanda and Darfur, the mass starvation and corruption of Ethiopia, and the horrors of apartheid, it took supergroup Band Aid, TV host Oprah Winfrey, and GQ poster boy George Clooney to get Americans to find Africa on a map. Unfortunately, this has also led to increased demands for blood diamonds and a rise in sex tourism by older women seeking young, inexpensive, black escorts for carnal safaris.
- Pryor Convictions: For most people growing up in the 60s and 70s, multiple sclerosis was an ambiguous disease, made more befuddling because its cure seemed so cheap. At every supermarket checkout counter was a cardboard receptacle from the March of Dimes asking for pennies, nickels, and dimes to find a cure for the nameless little girl smiling at shoppers from the lid of the collection box. Not until funnyman Richard Pryor's ravaged, crippled body appeared on the news in a wheelchair did any member of that generation fully realize how awful MS was. Or what it was. Before that, Pryor also saved middle-class, recreational drug users from certain death when he proved that drinking 151 rum and freebasing cocaine could set a person on fire.
The list goes on and on, according to Weldowhether. "I admit that even I had no idea the toll exhaustion and dehydration could take on a person's mind. Clearly, it leads to psychosis, not just physical discomfort. With nearly every celebrity succumbing to this disorder over the last decade, who can say how many lives may already have been saved? Remember that the next time you scoff at a movie star's salary, because you can't put a price tag on life."
(c) 2012. See disclaimers.