THE LIFE of Franklin Delano Roosevelt is an astonishment. In 1921, at the age of 39, he was struck by an attack of infantile paralysis which left him paralyzed below the waist for the rest of his life. In a time when the severely handicapped were seldom even seen in public, FDR resumed his political career. He was twice elected governor of New York and in 1932 he was elected president of the United Sates. No one else in the recorded history of mankind has been chosen as the leader of his people even though he could neither stand alone nor walk unassisted.
The precise nature and extent of FDR's handicap, even now, is not generally apreciated. His leg muscles were graded as "poor" and "trace" -- and thus were unable to function in any useful manner. In order to stand upon his legs FDR had to don long-leg steel braces. The gluteus maximus muscles of his hips were similarly impaired. The muscles of his trunk were weak and as a result, in the early stages of his rehabilitation, he was forced to wear a corset and to struggle with a pelvic band attached to his braces.
Paralysis resulting from an attack of infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis, is confined to the nerves that control the voluntary muscles. FDR had virtually normal function of his sensory and autonomic nervous system. This meant that his digestive tract, his bowels and bladder functioned normally, as did his sexual organs.
Throughout his 12 years in the White House Roosevelt led the country from a wheelchair. He was helped -- most often lifted bodily -- into or out of cars, tubs, chairs or beds. Journalist John Gunther reports it was a startling experience to see the president of the United States being carried up and down stairs "like a sack of potatoes," as his son James once described it.
Roosevelt stood up only for ceremonial occasions and only for as long as was absolutely necessary. He was able to stand only with the support of his braces and crutches. His braces caused him pain and he despised them roundly. He was able to "walk" only by the use of "hitching" the muscles on either side of his trunk. Leaning on his crutches, he would hike first one leg, swing it forward, transfer the weight of his body upon it and then, hiking up the other, he would swing it forward. This means of locomotion was a slow, lurching process. It was made worse by a drop foot which forced him to swing his foot around and forward in a wide arc so as to clear the ground.
Because he had no use of the gluteus maximus muscles of his hips Roosevelt was able to stabilize himself in a standing position at a podium only by firmly gripping the podium and thrusting his pelvis forward so that his hip joints were hyperextended. Except in this position, he ran the risk of buckling at the hips and falling. Without his glutueus maximus, he was unable to use the gait called swing-through and he was unable to handle curbs or stairs.
Working first with his sons and later with the Secret Service, FDR developed a strategy for public appearances that allowed the public to see him without being unduly aware of his handicap. FDR was never seen by the public in a wheelchair. He was never lifted bodily in the presence of the public. He developed a means of "walking" without crutches, which involved leaning heavily upon the strong right arm of an attendant while stabilizing himself with a cane. He used numerous tricks. For example, in proceeding up to a speaker's platform, he would have himself carried up the steps in a standing position. To all but the closest observers this appeared as though the president himself was climbing the stairs. He insisted upon endless practice because, as he emphasized to his sons, he thought that whatever was done in public must appear to spectators to be easy and without effort. FDR succeeded in this to an astonishing degree. Many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people saw him at fairly close range over the White House years and most did not notice that he was physically handicapped.
Even so, he faced extraordinary hazards. speaking at a Georgia rally in 1932 he addresses the crowd, as was his practice, from a standing position, holding onto a podium bolted to the floor. By inadvertence, this one, however, was not bolted and midway into his speech podium and candidate pitched forward into the orchestra pit. The audience was spellbound as candidate and podium were retrieved from the pit and set back upon the stage. Roosevelt finished his speech, taking up from the point at which he had stopped, without giving either comment or acknowledgement to his fall. At the conclusion he received a standing ovation. The accompanying press corps made no mention of the incident in the stories they filed fo that day. "No sob stuff," he had said to the press as he began his political comeback and, throughout his career, reporters and photographers respected his request. Although he spent most of his waking hours either in or near a wheelchair, no photograph of this chair ever appeared in the papers or magazines during his lifetime.
FDR was already a minor national figure at the time he contracted polio. He had served as Woodrow Wilson's assistant secretary of the Navy throughout World War I and in the election of 1920 he had made a glamorous vice presidential nominee on the losing Democratic ticket. He was a handsome, vigorous man with a famous name -- already well on the way to the presidency.
The onset of the disease had a shattering impact upon the man and his expectations. Clearly both he and Eleanor, his wife and closest political adviser, believed that public knowledge of the extent of the disease, like family scandal, would endanger FDR's political future. The severity in nature of the attack was kept secret from all but the closest family members and at first the press was told only that Roosevelt had contracted a case of influenza.
FDR's convalescence was to be a long and drawn-out affair. From the first he was absolutely, totally determined to walk again. For seven long years, from 1922 to 1928, the major part of his everyday, his primary and principal effort was directed toward rehabilitation.
He tried everything that had been used in the past. He tried massage, salt-water baths, ultraviolet light, electric current, walking on braces with parallel bars at waist height, walking while hanging from parallel bars mounted above his head. He tried horseback riding strapped to the saddle; he tried an electric tricycle his mother had brought from Europe. He tried exercises in warm water and exercises in cold water. He tried various theories of muscle training: working with gravity, against gravity, with resistance and without. He tried osteopathy. Even the eminent doctor, Emile Cou,e ("every day in every way I'm getting better and better,") was consulted in his behalf.
Nothing seemed to help very much. Finally, in the end, Roosevelt was forced to rehabilitate himself.
He never leaned how to walk again but he learned, instead, how to get on with his life using what muscles he had left. He learned this at Warm Springs, Ga. At Warm Springs, he created what was in many ways the first modern rehabilitation center. It was quite different from the standard orthopedic hospital of the day. As an early (Jan. 5, 1930) New York Times article made clear, "Warm Springs is not a sanitarium or a hospital. It is a year-round health resort for persons suffering from the loss of muscle control that follows infantile paralysis." Warm Springs was a group effort. The polios, exasperated by the severe and repressive hospitals of the day, dissatisfied with the treatments and rehabilitation efforts they had received, were determined to improve their lot. Under FDR's direction, they did so.
Roosevelt purchased and owned the Warm Springs Foundation. A large part of his private fortune was tied up in its financing. He served for a time as its director and always, from 1925 until his death in 1945, he maintained close contact with the foundation and its activities. Even as president he kept firm control over its policies and direction. Roosevelt himself developed a complete program of water therapy, practical exercises and functional training. He designed wheelchairs and invented equipment, exercises and muscle charts still in use today. "Doctor" Roosevelt, as he was called by the other polios, directed the exercise of the others, gave muscle tests himself. He organized the activities of the center, oversaw construction of the campus and, for the first two years, actually kept the books and paid the bills.
Warm Springs was unique for its time, and its concept of rehabilitation was decades ahead of its time. The center was owned and managed by polios. The polios hired the doctors and the therapists and told them what was expected. They developed and designed their braces and orthopedic appliances.
From the first it was Roosevelt's concept that rehabilitation was not primarily a medical process. It was a social process leading toward reintegration of the person into society. As Warm Springs was not a hospital, so its clients were not patients. They were consumers looking for the treatment and equipment best suited to restore optimum functional ability. The polios at Warm Springs gave each other much peer support. Functional training was heavily emphasized and the newer polios sought out the older, looking for suggestions and help in devising the means for performing the normal tasks of daily living with impaired or paralyzed muscle power.
Warm Springs, a reflection of Franklin Roosevelt's personality and philosophy, was a cheerful, sunny place where the importance of social life, picnics, parties and dating was always emphasized, and where the basic importance of fun in the rehabilitation process was recognized.
FDR, his enthusiasm and motivation, made Warm Springs a success. These were the same qualities Roosevelt later brought to the presidency. They were fully as effective in Washington as they had been in Georgia.