The first major outbreak of “infantile paralysis” as the disease was then known, occurred in 1916, with more than 27,000 cases of the virus ravaging the Northeast, leaving 6,000 people dead. Because this outbreak originated in a heavily populated immigrant community in Brooklyn, the initial attack led to an increase in xenophobia in more rural and affluent parts of the country, and the widespread assumption that immigrants carried the disease. Closely associated with this perception that immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were undesirable and unfit was the eugenic notion that “crippled individuals” were somehow inferior, flawed in character as well as body, to be shunted away and kept from public view.
Many of these perceptions changed, however, when news broke in 1921 that Roosevelt had come down with polio while vacationing with his family off the east coast of Maine. The fact that such a well-known public figure — the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 1920 — from a wealthy family had acquired the disease helped transform the public’s perception of polio. So too did the increasing number of middle- and upper-class Americans who had contracted the illness.
Though paralyzed from the waist down, Roosevelt never lost hope that he might recover the use of his legs. In 1924 he read about a young man who appeared to have regained his ability to walk by swimming in the warm waters of a resort in Warm Springs, Ga. Inspired by this story, Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs, “took the waters” and became so convinced of the springs’ restorative qualities that he not only bought the resort, but also soon turned it into the nation’s first major center for rehabilitative therapy. To support this facility and help foster a greater public awareness of how modern medicine could assist his fellow polio sufferers, Roosevelt established a nonprofit organization called the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation.
Roosevelt’s return to politics in 1928 — a successful bid to become governor of New York — provided another opportunity for him to encourage public support for what was called “aftercare” therapy. By frequently appearing in public supported by steel braces carefully concealed under his pant legs, he was able to “stand” behind a lectern, or “walk” a few short paces, swinging each braced leg forward one at a time, steadied by a cane and the arm of one of his sons or an aide, head up, smiling and laughing as if he were out for a leisurely stroll.
This “splendid deception” helped create the impression that Roosevelt had largely recovered from polio. It also helped lessen the public’s fear of the disease and reduce the stigma associated with it. The truth, of course, was that this “walk” took tremendous effort and concentration. But it also boosted Roosevelt’s political career. As his opponents’ attacks on his health and fitness for office during the 1932 campaign revealed, the public was not ready to elect a president who was used a wheelchair.
Having confronted his own paralysis, Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 confident that he could help lift a paralyzed nation out of the depths of the Great Depression. For the next 12 years, this man of action — who was frequently depicted as running and jumping in editorial cartoons — would transform the relationship between the American people and their government and between the United States and the rest of the world.
His bigger platform also allowed him to continue his work at Warm Springs. After the successful 1934 launch of annual fundraising “Birthday Balls” with the slogan “to dance so that others may walk,” Roosevelt helped orchestrate the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1937 “to lead, direct and unify the fight against every phase of this sickness.” The organization launched the famous “March of Dimes” fundraising campaign in mid-January 1938, which by the end of that month had flooded the White House mailroom with 2,680,000 dimes.
Inspired by the progress that was being accomplished in the treatment of polio, Roosevelt also took great interest in the expansion of the federal government’s role in advancing the science of public health. It was Roosevelt who secured the funding, selected the site and provided the initial design of the massive Bethesda Naval Hospital that opened in 1942. Roosevelt also vastly expanded the facilities of the National Institutes of Health. In dedicating the new $4 million facility that would house the National Cancer Institute in October 1940 — roughly a year after the outbreak of the Second World War — the president proclaimed that, in addition to the acquisition of “airplanes, ships, guns and bombs,” the security of the United States required the application of medical knowledge and science because “we cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation.”
Realizing the U.S. was but a day or two by plane from the “yellow fever of South America” or “the sleeping sickness of equatorial Africa” Roosevelt established a Health and Medical Committee within the Department of Defense “to coordinate the health and medical aspects of national preparedness.” While NIH had done good work, Roosevelt insisted the federal government could do “infinitely more” because “disease disregards state lines as well as national” and among the states “there is inequality of opportunity for health.”
Roosevelt would not live to see Jonas Salk’s announcement in 1955, 10 years after his death, of the successful development of a polio vaccine — thanks to the millions of dollars raised by “the March of Dimes.” But his struggle against polio and dedication to the expansion of medical science for the benefit of all Americans demonstrate the value of seeing national preparedness as broad enough to encompass scientific and medical research.
While Roosevelt never regained the use of his legs, his faith in medical science never wavered, nor did his belief in the inherent compassion that drove doctors and nurses.
Perhaps it is here that we might find the greatest lesson from Roosevelt’s personal struggle with polio. In a tribute to the founders of the Mayo Clinic in 1934, which applies equally to the health-care professionals on the front lines today, the president observed that medicine concerns “many things besides the healing of the sick. … It has taught us how science may be made the servant of a richer, more complete common life.” Even more importantly, perhaps, it taught “lessons in the ethics of human relationships — how devotion to the public good, unselfish service, never-ending consideration of human needs are in themselves conquering forces.”
As we struggle to overcome the deep political divisions that have done nothing to help our nation solve this pandemic, we would do well to embrace these “conquering forces” and take heed of what Roosevelt said about the wisdom of science and character of the medical professionals who are risking their lives to keep us safe.
“Democracy looks to the day when these virtues will be required and expected of those who serve the public officially and unofficially. Modern medicine has set an exalted example. It has shown the way for us all.”