FDR and Polio: Public Life, Private Pain
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a complex relationship with the infectious disease that crippled himpolio. He concealed his disability so well that millions of Americans never knew he was a paraplegic in a wheelchair. At the same time, he used the power of his office and his personality to champion the fight against polio and make it a national cause. Through speeches, actions, and example, FDR played an important role in changing the history of polio in America.
In 1921, at the age of 39old for a polio victimthe normally vigorous Roosevelt fell ill when vacationing at his family's summer home at Campobello Island in Canada. At first, he had aches and pains, weakness in his legs, and a fever of 102 degrees. The local doctor said that FDR had a very bad cold. When Roosevelt's condition worsened, a specialist vacationing nearby examined Roosevelt and incorrectly diagnosed a spinal cord lesion. Two weeks later, Robert Lovett, then the leading American authority on polio, came to Campobello to find out what was wrong. He could tell immediately that FDR had polio.
Roosevelt, who planned a life in politics, wouldn't accept the limitations of his disease. But how could he demonstrate that he was healthy and strong enough to run for office? Although Roosevelt made no secret of the diseasethe New York Times carried the story of his illness on the front pagehe downplayed the severity of his disability. The public rarely saw him sitting in a wheelchair or using the steel braces he needed to walk. By common, unspoken consent, the press almost never photographed Roosevelt while he was in motion.
In 1931, when Roosevelt gave a radio address in support of a "program of assistance for the crippled," he was matter-of-fact about discussing his disability. "People will know that restoring one of us cripplesbecause as some of you know, I walk around with a cane and with the aid of someone's arm myselfto useful occupation costs money," he told listeners. "...People who are crippled take a long time to be put back on their feetsometimes years, as we all know."
Making a difference in the lives of other polio patients
In addition to giving speeches, Roosevelt took concrete actions to help the cause of polio. In 1924, he had discovered the healing waters of a resort in Warm Springs, Georgia, and went there regularly for swimming and other vigorous exercise to strengthen his muscles. Two years later, he bought the resort for $200,000, a good portion of his personal wealth, and, in 1927, formed the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a hydrotherapy center for polio victims. FDR sometimes even led physical therapy sessions with patients, who called him "Uncle Rosey." Many of the treatment techniques for patients recovering from polio and other paralytic disorders, as well as orthopedic designs and principles, were developed at Warm Springs. For example, the hand controls that allowed FDR to drive a car originated at Warm Springs, which is now the Roosevelt Institute for Rehabilitation.
In 1937, after he was already president, Roosevelt established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Comedian Eddie Cantor suggested a plan to help raise money for the foundation, whose goal was to provide care to polio victims and to support research. Call the foundation "The March of Dimes," Cantor said, and suggest that everyone send a dime for polio research to the president. The dimes poured into the White House, and in 1938, the March of Dimes made its first research grant, to Yale University. By 1955, the year the Salk vaccine was declared safe, effective, and potent, the March of Dimes had invested $25.5 million in research. Although Roosevelt did not live to see the vaccine, he and the March of Dimes were so closely associated that the U.S. Congress honored his memory by putting his face on the dime. The government released the first Roosevelt dimes on January 30, 1946, FDR's birthday and the start of the annual March of Dimes campaign.
FDR's personality also influenced the perception that polio could be conquered. As president, Roosevelt became a powerful symbol of an individual's ability to overcome the ravages of polio, and letters from polio sufferers and their families sought his encouragement and support. "Every time I hear your voice on the radio and read about your attitude toward physical handicaps... I am strengthened and my courage is renewed..." wrote a mother whose eight-year-old son was in braces. And from a 12 year old who had already spent six months in the hospital came this letter: "I don't know when I shall be able to walk again, but I am not giving up hope. You had paralysis but that didn't stop you from progressing." Roosevelt's own buoyant spirit and sustained support for a vaccine helped many Americans believe that polio could ultimately be vanquished.
© 2013 Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A philanthropy serving society through biomedical research and science education.