WASHINGTON — Former first lady Nancy Reagan was teased about her belief in astrology, but she also had faith in science.
Reagan, who died Sunday at age 94, had a greater impact on public health than most Americans might recall.
Despite opposition from many Republican Party leaders, Reagan pushed for stem-cell research, established an Alzheimer’s research institute, and, like first lady Betty Ford before her, talked publicly about her breast cancer treatment when the subject was still considered taboo in polite society.
“Hers was an important voice in the effort to advance medical science in the hope of improving people’s health,” said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, in an email.
Here are the medical issues where Nancy Reagan’s legacy is still felt:
It was November 1994 when Ronald Reagan revealed his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease to the American public. Although some observers had suspected the former president developed Alzheimer’s while still in office — and even parsed his speeches for clues — his family insisted he was not stricken until he left the White House.
Despite that sensitive issue, Nancy Reagan became an active supporter for Alzheimer’s research. In 1995, the couple established the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, affiliated with the Alzheimer’s Association, with Nancy the driving force behind it.
Nancy called the illness “a truly long, long goodbye.” During Ronald’s 10-year struggle with the disease, Nancy rarely left his side other than to raise money for Alzheimer’s research or to stand in for him at Republican events.
The Reagans raised millions of dollars for Alzheimer’s research and put the face of a beloved president on a dreaded disease.
In the early 2000s, the notion of public funding for embryonic stem-cell research was controversial and divisive, with many Republicans tying the issue to abortion.
Much of that changed in 2004, when Nancy Reagan, speaking at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation event, brought up the issue. “Science has presented us with a hope called stem-cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that have for so long been beyond our grasp,” she said. “I don’t see how we can turn our backs on this. There are so many diseases that can be cured or at least helped. We’ve lost so much time already. I can’t bear to lose any more.”
Robert Klein, one of the architects of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, a state agency established to fund embryonic stem-cell research, remembered hearing that speech. Everyone there, he said, was “personally moved” by Nancy Reagan “and the hope and drive she had to move stem-cell research forward to actually cure [Alzheimer’s] disease.”
“She was a true champion of stem-cell research,” Klein told STAT.
Hans Keirstead, a prominent stem-cell biologist who Reagan consulted to learn about the state of the science, said the former actress knew her stuff.
“Five minutes with Nancy Reagan and it was quite apparent that she needed no education whatsoever,” Keirstead recalled. “She really wanted to know where things were going in the future such that she could shape the nation’s policy accordingly.”
Her influence in Washington went all the way to the White House. In 2001, she wrote to President George W. Bush, who opposed harvesting cells from discarded human embryos — and her words seemed to have made a difference. Bush didn’t ban all stem-cell research funding, as he initially intended to do, but instead restricted using government funds for cell lines that were already established.
Later, when there was talk of federal legislation to block state-funded embryonic stem-cell research, “she went to bat,” said Klein, calling lawmakers in the US House and Senate to make there were no federal impediments.
Breast cancer awareness
Betty Ford went public first, but by discussing her own decision to have a mastectomy — before the days of pink ribbons and Race for the Cure — Nancy Reagan helped break down the stigma that many women felt accompanied a breast cancer diagnosis.
In March 1988, less than six months after her mastectomy, Reagan appeared on television, explaining why she chose that course of treatment.
“I couldn’t possibly lead the kind of life I lead, and keep the schedule that I do, having radiation or chemotherapy,” she told Barbara Walters, on ABC’s 20/20. “There’d be no way. Maybe if I’d been 20 years old, hadn’t been married, hadn’t had children, I would feel completely differently. But for me it was right.”
Nancy Reagan also encouraged women to have mammograms every year — and researchers credit her efforts, and the media coverage they generated, with more women getting screened and more women choosing mastectomies for treatment.
Aram Bakshian, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, said Nancy wanted to avoid partisan politics, but felt that talking about medical issues was a place where she could make a difference, without hurting her husband.
“She often spoke out on health and humanitarian issues,” Bakshian said. “I think she also she probably knew — and this is speculation — that she could speak a little more freely than the president on some issues like stem cells.”
Elie Dolgin contributed reporting.