Nichelle Nichols is one of the most beloved sci-fi icons in the world. Unfortunately, though, the Star Trek star has been suffering health problems in recent years. In 2015 news hit that she had suffered a stroke, deeply upsetting her legions of fans. She seemed to be getting better… but just a few years later she was diagnosed with something just as serious.
Nichelle Nichols played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, a bridge officer, in the classic ’60s sci-fi series Star Trek. The TV program was groundbreaking in many ways, not least because it used its futuristic setting to comment on contemporary issues such as war, sexism, and racism. Uhura was one of the few black women on television presented as equal to her white counterparts.
Star Trek even featured one of the first interracial kisses in American TV history, when Nichols kissed William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Nichols wrote in her 1994 autobiography about one of the letters she got at the time. A white man wrote, “I am totally opposed to the mixing of the races. However, any time a red-blooded American boy like Captain Kirk gets a beautiful dame in his arms that looks like Uhura, he ain’t gonna fight it.”
Uhura was seen as so important to social progress that none other than Martin Luther King came to see Nichols at one point. Nichols was thinking of leaving the show, but a conversation with Dr. King changed her mind. He told her he was her biggest fan and that she was a vital role model for other black women in America. She decided not to quit.
Over time, Uhura and Nichols became TV icons. Their influence spread so far and wide that people were inspired to pursue careers because of it. Astronaut Mae Jemison has said the character of Uhura was a big part of her deciding on a career with NASA. And Whoopi Goldberg, who acted on Star Trek: The Next Generation, also numbers Nichols among her heroes.
Not only that, but Nichols collaborated with NASA on a recruitment scheme after Star Trek finished. Her role was to help involve more women and ethnic minorities in the space program, and it was a big success. One of the recruits was Sally Ride, later the first American woman to go into space, and another was Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut.
Considering all that she’s achieved in her life, it’s no wonder Nichols is beloved not just by Trekkies but by the wider public at large. So there was widespread concern in June 2015 when the agency that represented Nichols announced that she had suffered a stroke. It was a mild stroke, but still not good news.
Nichols’ Facebook page kept fans updated on her condition. She had suffered some slight mobility loss, the update read, but otherwise seemed all right. “She will start therapy this morning to evaluate how much damage was done and try to determine her chances for a full or partial recovery,” said the post.
For a while, it seemed like everything would be okay with Nichols. Later on in 2015, she even flew on NASA’s specially adapted jumbo jet, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). Indeed, she even communicated with fans via social media while on board. And the following year, she picked up The Life Career Award at the 42nd Saturn Awards ceremony.
But in early August 2018, some devastating news broke. Tabloid news website TMZ announced that Nichols had been diagnosed with dementia. It had obtained some court documents regarding her ongoing care. In them her doctor, Dr. Meena Makhijani, reportedly stated that the 85-year-old actress was suffering from “moderate progressive dementia.”
The disease seemed to still be in its early stages, according to the documents. TMZ reported that Nichols had, according to her doctor, “major impairment of her short-term memory and moderate impairment of understanding abstract concepts, sense of time, place and immediate recall.”
Dementia is a terrible disease, and unfortunately an all too common one. According to Neurological Rehabilitation, a 2012 study by Darcy Umphred, about 10 percent of people will get it at some point in their lives, and nearly half of people over the age of 85 have it. Though there are a few drugs and cognitive interventions that can improve the sufferer’s quality of life, there is no cure.
People with dementia can be more vulnerable to being exploited. Early in 2018, Nichols’ son Kyle Johnson had arranged for four people to be her conservators and handle her finances. But unfortunately, as happens tragically often in these cases, a legal battle soon developed.
On August 17, TMZ reported that new legal papers regarding Nichols had been filed, these ones by a friend of hers, Angelique Fawcette. She claimed that the doctor who had diagnosed Nichols was not a qualified psychiatrist, that Nichols showed few noticeable signs of dementia and that Johnson was trying to get hold of her property and wealth.
Fawcett had also shot a video of Nichols back in 2013, where she spoke about her desire to keep working as long as she could. She also spoke about her son and how he apparently wanted her to stop working. “He sees me on travel as overwork. I think he thinks Star Trek, the movie for which I’m most known, is not a blessing to me.”
In the 2013 footage Nichols continued: “I said [to him], ‘You cannot tell me what I can and cannot be as a human being, any more than you can tell a woman what she can and cannot be or do, a man which mountain he can climb… you don’t pay for my life. You don’t own me, and I don’t try to own you.’” It was clear she was determined to remain independent.
There was another complication too. At the May hearing where Nichols’ conservators were appointed, the attorney hired by Johnson, Jeffrey Marvan, said he suspected Nichols’ manager of stealing from her. He claimed that Gilbert Bell had deeded one of Nichols’ properties to himself and that $259,000, which Nichols made from Trek conventions, had gone missing. At the same hearing Bell’s lawyer, Eric Jeter, said Bell had canceled the property transfer.
It’s clearly a complicated, painful situation for Nichols and those close to her. Sadly, it’s far from uncommon for legal battles to erupt when a person is diagnosed with dementia. When that person is a celebrity, things can get even worse, as everything is done in the public eye. Recently, battles around Stan Lee and Tim Conway have been reported in the media.
Nichols does at least seem to be okay for now. She recently attended a Comic Con in Detroit, where her spokesperson said she had no comment about the dementia diagnosis. She appeared to be healthy when she spoke to the Oakland Press newspaper about the event. “The fans are what drive us. It’s beautiful to see after all these years how much we mean to them,” she said.
Nichols indeed means a lot to her fans, as well as to countless others, astronauts and politicians among them. So it’s upsetting to think she may begin suffering from more serious dementia as time goes on. However, she’s left an amazing legacy of social progress and scientific advancement behind her.