Sandra Day O’Connor honored for raising funding, awareness for Alzheimer’s research

Arizona’s Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, was honored for her decades of work to raise funding and awareness about Alzheimer’s at the 11th annual Great Ladies Symposium, hosted by the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF). The organization has helped raise more than $2.5 billion for public and private research efforts. 

Sandra Day O’Connor

O’Connor, an ADDF honorary board chair, and her family were recognized along with other “extraordinary Alzheimer’s advocates” at the event. More than 200 supporters tuned in to learn about the latest developments in Alzheimer’s drug discovery and celebrate the honorees, who raised more than $460,000 this year. 

Now, suffering from the disease herself, O’Connor, 91, was unable to attend the virtual event. Family, friends and colleagues accepted the award for her and talked about her legacy, including as caregiver to her husband.

O’Connor’s late husband, John, also had Alzheimer’s. O’Connor, who was appointed to the high court in 1981, stepped down from the bench in 2006 to care for him. In 2018, she announced she was in the early stages of the brain disorder. 

Sons talk of struggle with both parents afflicted

Two of her three sons, Jay and Scott, accepted the Great Ladies Award on O’Connor’s behalf. They spoke about how torn she felt upon leaving the bench, and the toll of being a caretaker to a loved one who has the disease.   

Scott O’Connor

“When she rose to the court, she felt she owed it to the country to do the best as the first woman on the court. She’d had a tremendous sense of obligation and guilt to take care of dad. But she couldn’t do both and it was crushing her,” Scott said. 

A family intervention then occurred, he said. Family members continued to carry on her efforts to advance research. 

Jay O’Connor

“We need to find a treatment or cure, and ADDF is playing an invaluable role in finding the most promising avenues for research,” Jay said. 

Arizona-raised with a pioneering spirit

O’Connor’s accomplishments during her lifetime were also highlighted at the event. Her official biographer, Evan Thomas, talked about her life and her pioneering spirit. 

“It’s commonplace now to have women in government, but in 1981 when she came on court, she was still unusual. This was before Sally Ride was an astronaut or Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State,” Thomas said. “She wasn’t chief justice, but she was the center of that court. It was often called the O’Connor court because of her personal power and her ability to compromise and get along with sometimes difficult people. 

“She could be tough. All through her life, she was challenged because she was a woman in a man’s world as she was growing up. But she could also be warm.” 

Also honored was a leading Alzheimer’s advocate and international interior designer Thomas Pheasant who received the second annual Estelle Gelman Award at the event. 

Past recipients of the awards include former First Lady Nancy Reagan, basketball coach Pat Summitt, and Washington Capitals team member and Stanley Cup winner T.J. Oshie, who’s father died of Alzheimer’s last month. 

Current research and treatments 

At the annual symposium, experts detailed research and promising treatments. ADDF is helping fund 20 percent of all treatments for Alzheimer’s currently in clinical trials.

The foundation also seed-funded research for the first diagnostic test for Alzheimer’s. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the test, called Amyvid, in 2012. Amyvid is the first project the organization funded to receive FDA approval but many more are now in or advancing toward human clinical trials, organization officials said. 

To view the event in its entirety, visit: Great Ladies Symposium

About the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation

Founded in 1998 by Leonard and Ronald Lauder, the foundation’s mission is to rapidly accelerate the discovery of drugs to prevent, treat and cure Alzheimer’s disease. Through the generosity of its donors, the ADDF has awarded more than $168 million to fund over 650 Alzheimer’s drug discovery and biomarker programs and clinical trials in 19 countries. To learn more, please visit: Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation

Victoria Harker

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