“Superman” dies: Oct. 10, 2004

Christopher Reeve, the actor famous for playing Superman in four movies, dies of heart failure in a New York hospital.  It is almost nine and a half years since he had become paralyzed from the neck down after he was thrown from his horse during an equestrian meet in Virginia. By the time he died, Reeve had become one of the world’s leading advocates for research into healing spinal cord injuries.

At the time of his riding accident, Reeve was in the post-Superman phase of his acting career in his effort to, as he put it, “escape the cape.”  Ironically, one of his Broadway roles had been as a handicapped Vietnam veteran in the play “The Fifth of July.” His injury occurred when his horse stopped as it approached a jump and Reeve was thrown forward.  He landed on his head, shattering his first and second vertebrae.

In the days afterwards, as he would later tell Barbara Walters in an interview, Reeve considered killing himself.  Once he saw his children, however, he chose to live and began slowly rehabilitating himself, even though initially he couldn’t breathe without a respirator.

He was never able to recover control of his body--with the exception of being able to move an index finger—but Reeve had followed a specialized workout regimen to keep his arms and legs strong in the event he was able to walk one day

Despite his condition, Reeve did not hesitate to appear in public.  He appeared before Congress to lobby for better insurance protection against catastrophic injuries and he spoke at the 1996 Academy Awards, urging those in the audience to make more movies about social issues.

But most of his focus was on being a crusader for people with spinal cord injuries, particularly in pushing for research into whether stem cells could be used to help the body begin repairing itself. He and his wife, Dana, became active in the American Paralysis Foundation, which became the Christopher Reeve Foundation.

His notoriety and commitment brought more exposure and attracted more funding to the cause and, as Dr. John McDonald, director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at Washington University in St. Louis, noted in Reeve’s obituary in the New York Times: "Before him there was really no hope. If you had a spinal cord injury like his there was not much that could be done, but he's changed all that, he's demonstrated that there is hope and that there are things that can be done."

But Reeve grew increasingly frustrated with the slow pace of stem cell research in the U.S., particularly after President George W. Bush restricted federal funding for research using stem cells obtained from human embryos. In 2003, Reeve went to Israel, a world leader in stem cell research, at the invitation of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He described the progress in some patients he saw there as “almost overwhelming.”

But Reeve didn’t live long enough to be able to take advantage of the medical advances. It would be more than four years after his death, in January, 2009, before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first clinical trial involving human embryonic stem cells.  Unfortunately, the company involved in that first trial, the Geron Corp., of California, abruptly ended its research in 2011 to concentrate on cancer studies.

More slices of history

Thalidomide goes on market: Oct. 1, 1957

Discovery of penicillin: Sept. 28, 1928

Discovery of bacteria in humans: Sept. 17, 1683

First drunk driver: Sept. 10, 1897

1st U.S. incubator baby: Sept. 7, 1888