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The President vs. The Epidemic: FDR's Polio Crusade

No president can end an epidemic single handedly, but they can inspire a popular movement that eradicates a disease. Such was the case with Franklin Roosevelt and polio.

Seventy-five years ago, on April 12, 1945, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, Georgia. His administration’s achievements, such as Social Security and unemployment relief, are woven into the fabric of American government. Pundits still measure new presidents against FDR’s First Hundred Days, and present-day politicians slap the “New Deal” label on ambitious agendas. Donald Trump, like FDR a wealthy New Yorker presiding over turbulent economic times, has recently cast himself as a “wartime president” in his predecessor’s mold.

Although FDR’s continuing relevance is undeniable, one of his greatest achievements has faded into relative obscurity even though Americans are reminded of it whenever they sift through their pocket change. The faces gracing common American coins are a parade of Great White Men – Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson – with no obvious rationale for appearing on one denomination or another. It would be as apropos for Lincoln to grace the quarter as the penny.

But examine the smallest and thinnest coin, the dime. More specifically, the Roosevelt dime, first minted in 1946. FDR’s stolid look, with a hint of Cheshire-cat grin, conceals a hidden logic. While president, FDR was a driving force behind the March of Dimes, the charity that financed Dr. Jonas Salk’s creation of a polio vaccine. Because of this medical wonder, along with its successors, the United States has not spawned a polio case for more than forty years. This remarkable chain of events makes FDR responsible for saving thousands of lives and saving even more people from paralysis.

FDR contracted polio in 1921, the year following his failed bid for the vice presidency. His symptoms were the stuff of mothers’ nightmares: fever, fatigue, stiff neck, constant pain. Paralysis crept through his body until it stretched from his toes to his chest. Years of rehabilitation restored his upper-body functionality.

Horrible as polio (or “infantile paralysis,” as FDR called it) was, it was much rarer than cancer and many other diseases, to say nothing of accidents and other causes of death. A typical year saw around 10,000 polio cases, the vast majority of them nonfatal. In the terrible polio year of 1916, the disease claimed 27,000 American lives. Most people who contracted the virus exhibited either mild symptoms or none at all. Only around one percent of infected people experienced severe symptoms such as FDR’s.

When FDR fell ill, scientists knew that a virus caused polio, and that the polio virus was contagious, but could say little else with certainty. Polio research was sporadic and uncoordinated. Although a scourge, particularly because it disproportionately targeted children, it affected too few people to merit a massive, sustained campaign for a cure.

FDR was the person most responsible for elevating polio into a national concern. His efforts encompassed three distinct phases: citizen-scientist, philanthropist, and figurehead.

FDR’s mind, and his family’s wealth, made him an ideal citizen-scientist. At heart he was a gatherer and a tinkerer who accumulated a massive stamp collection, boxes of family records, a cabinet of stuffed birds, hundreds of naval prints, and an admirable library. As president he championed “bold, persistent experimentation,” attacking problems with one possible solution after another.

The problem of polio suited these tendencies. FDR amassed vast files of studies and correspondence with physicians and other polio sufferers. He became a human guinea pig who tested various massage treatments, physical therapies, and products, then shared information about the results of those experiments with the polio community.

In 1924, FDR’s search for a cure led him to Warm Springs, Georgia, whose mineral waters had allegedly enabled paralyzed polio victims to remove their braces and cast off their crutches. FDR’s first dip in the pool was a revelation. He felt buoyant, mobile, vibrant. Two years later he spent more than $200,000, two-thirds of his fortune, to purchase the mineral pools, an old inn, some cottages, and twelve hundred undeveloped acres (later adding 1,750 more) to create the Warm Springs Foundation, soon to become the nation’s preeminent polio care and rehabilitation center. Like the Gilded Age plutocrats who persuaded their wealthy friends to support philanthropic causes, FDR and his mother Sara enlisted prominent bankers, lawyers, and industrialists to supplement FDR’s massive investment. FDR’s fingerprints were everywhere. He designed exercise programs, shared results with doctors around the country, and covered expenses for indigent patients seeking care.

In 1928, New Yorkers elected FDR governor. His stunning political comeback necessitated his detachment from Warm Springs. Roosevelt chose his former law partner Basil O’Connor as the foundation’s new head. Governor Roosevelt remained deeply interested in Warm Springs and spent what time there he could, but he became a figurehead rather than a hands-on manager.

Election to the White House completed FDR’s transformation into the anti-polio crusade’s symbolic leader. When the Depression dried up contributions, the foundation scrambled for new ways to raise cash. In 1933, a public relations man named Henry Byoir proposed staging a nationwide series of birthday balls honoring the popular president, with the proceeds going to Warm Springs. Exploiting the president’s name to raise money for the president’s favorite charity represented a clear conflict of interest and a potential political scandal. FDR didn’t care. “If my birthday will be of any help, take it,” he said.

The Warm Springs Foundation urged prominent citizens from big cities and small towns to organize local balls. On January 30, 1934, the president’s 52nd birthday, hundreds of thousands of depression-stricken Americans hit dance floors at more than six thousand venues ranging from high-school gymnasiums to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. FDR, following some initial hesitation, recorded a brief radio message thanking attendees for “helping the cause of crippled children.” The first President’s Birthday Ball raised more than $1 million for Warm Springs and local communities. FDR challenged the organizers to do even better next year.

The annual President’s Birthday Ball became a secular holiday filling the gap between New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. Even Roosevelt-hating newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune promoted them, albeit with some minor grousing about the president using charity to boost his popularity. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and other family members attended events. FDR contributed annual radio perorations but otherwise held aloof from the proceedings.

The Birthday Balls nevertheless reinforced New Deal philosophies. The President’s Birthday Ball Commission’s structure, which combined centralized direction with grassroots organization, epitomized the administration’s broader attempt to unite federal planning with local execution. Through the balls, individuals formed temporary communities working toward a common goal. Their slogan, “Dance So That Others Might Walk,” reflected the New Dealish belief that small, individual sacrifices, such as paying admission to a ball, could reap enormous benefits for marginalized Americans. And fundamental to both the New Deal and the birthday balls was FDR’s confidence that every puzzle, whether economic or viral, had a solution. 

Money kept rolling in. Every January, postmen inundated the White House mailroom with sacks of coins attached to letters and postcards. Residue from adhesive tape covered staffers’ hands in an unsavory, sticky goo. A more cynical generation might decry an administration that solicited untrackable cash contributions from schoolchildren, but untold numbers of Depression-era Americans believed their president would forward their quarters and dimes to their intended destination.

In 1938 the Warm Springs Foundation became the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). Basil O’Connor remained at its head. The White House still accepted donations, and FDR still gave his annual speech to Birthday Ball attendees. Its purpose too remained intact. The NFIP funded research, educated physicians, and provided care and financial aid to polio sufferers. Its fundraising wing, named the March of Dimes at entertainer Eddie Cantor’s suggestion, proved effective. In 1940 it raised about $2 million through Birthday Balls alone. Even with FDR in a figurehead role, the organization maintained its New Deal flavor. “There is no national planning board against tuberculosis, cancer, syphilis – or any of the major plagues that afflict us,” noted NFIP medical advisor Paul de Kruif. We must fight polio, de Kruif argued, “not in a helter-skelter manner, but with the war in its various phases planned by the best scientific, medical, public health and surgical brains in the country.” With its emphasis on organization, centralized planning, and expertise, the NFIP felt much like the TVA, AAA, FSA, RA, and other New Deal, alphabet-soup agencies. 

FDR’s apolitical Birthday Ball addresses evolved with changing political circumstances. In 1940, with Europe and Asia at war and the United States teetering toward an un-neutral neutrality, FDR compared partygoers with a “volunteer army…taking part in the defense of American childhood.” His 1945 address was even more militant. FDR was on his way to the Yalta Conference, so he asked Eleanor to deliver his speech. “The success of the 1945 March of Dimes in the campaign against infantile paralysis does not come as a surprise to me,” she read. “We are a national of free people, and free people know how to go over the top – whether it’s a Nazi wall, a Japanese island fortress, a production goal, a bond drive, or a stream of silver dimes.” The March of Dimes raised $19 million in 1945, $1,000 for every polio case from the previous year.

On April 12, 1955, the tenth anniversary of FDR’s death, the March of Dimes proclaimed the Salk vaccine “safe, effective, and potent.” Polio had met its match. Jonas Salk and other scientists deserve credit for vanquishing the disease. Polio’s defeat was also a triumph for democracy. Around 160 million people had contributed $367 million to the March of Dimes and its predecessor. Most of that, around $203 million, went to hospitalization, equipment, nursing, and physical therapy for 294,000 polio patients. But it was Franklin Roosevelt who inspired Americans to mobilize against their invisible enemy. Few Birthday Ball attendees or March of Dimes contributors were at risk for polio themselves. FDR’s leadership convinced these people to make a small sacrifice so that someone else would not contract the disease. Over the years, Roosevelt’s audacious battle against polio grew from an individual struggle into a national crusade to create a world that need not fear nature’s tiniest creation: a virus.