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Justin Willman

A Magician’s Mission to Make Alzheimer’s Disease Disappear

Alzheimer’s can make you feel very hopeless. But I think right now we’re at a time when Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University are making amazing strides in research.

Justin Willman

When Justin Willman was 12, he tried to impress his St. Louis neighborhood friends by riding a bike while wearing roller blades. The stunt seemed like a good idea at the time, but it flopped when Justin fell and broke both arms. After six months of orthopedic care, Justin’s doctor urged him to find a hobby that would increase his dexterity. Inspired by a magician he had seen at the hospital, Justin decided to learn card tricks.

It proved to be a life-changing choice. Today, Justin is a world-famous magician, comedian and producer. The star and creator of the hit Netflix original series “Magic for Humans,” he has performed at the White House, is a regular on television talk shows and has hosted programs on the Food Network and Disney channels.

He also provided the special entertainment at the 2021 virtual Illumination Gala, hosted by The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Justin, his sister, Ashley, and their father, Robert, have a special relationship with the Foundation. It’s where they established the Sonja V. Willman Alzheimer’s Disease Research Fund in honor of Justin’s mother who died in 2020 from complications of the disease.

On June 26, 2021, Justin will host a star-studded virtual event to benefit the fund called “Magic for Memories: A Night of Comedy and Wonder to Make Alzheimer’s Disappear.” The event will feature celebrity performers including Grammy winners Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles and Weird Al Yankovic, comedians Jim Gaffigan and Nicole Byer, and neuroscientist Lisa Genova, the New York Times best-selling author of “Still Alice.”

It will also include a special appearance by John C. Morris, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine.

The Magic of a Cure

Although safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic prevented Justin from live performances, the ability to reach many more viewers via Zoom gave him the idea of raising money for his mother’s Alzheimer’s research fund. He reached out to celebrity friends, who agreed without hesitation.

“Alzheimer’s can make you feel very hopeless,” Justin says. “But I think right now we’re at a time when Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University are making amazing strides in research.”

During the show, Justin will interview Dr. Morris, who will explain how gifts to Sonja’s fund are playing an important role in making crucial advances. This progress makes Justin optimistic that the end of Alzheimer’s disease could happen in his lifetime.

“I feel like we’re on the cusp of some really big moments,” Justin says. “Nothing is going to bring my mom back at this point, but if I can work hard to help ensure my son doesn’t have to live in a world where a parent, loved one or himself are robbed of the beautiful thing that is our brain and our memories and our relationships to the people around us, then that would feel really, really great.”

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