healthcare / History

How FDR Conquered Polio–Twice!

By Pamela Lowry

(March 26, 2020–This article was written in 2005. It is republished with the permission of Colin Lowry, with an eye to the much more severe medical crisis our nation and the world are suffering today. While polio is little known in the United States today, the crippling disease reached epidemic proportions periodically over the first half of the 20th century. Major outbreaks occurred in 1916, 1949, and 1952, sometimes causing permanent paralysis in more than a third of the cases.)

On the night of Jan. 30, 1934, there were 6,000 balls held across the nation to celebrate President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday. The motivation for these “Birthday Balls,” as they were called, was to raise money for the conquest of polio. President Roosevelt addressed the participants on a nationwide radio hookup, saying that he was speaking not so much as the President, but “more as the representative on this occasion of the hundreds of thousands of crippled children in our country.”

FDR on the radio

Most of the more than $1 million raised by the balls went to create an endowment for the Warm Springs rehabilitation facility which Roosevelt had created in Georgia. In the following year, the proceeds from the Birthday Balls were spent differently—70% of the proceeds went to provide care and treatment for crippled Americans in the communities where the money had been raised. The other 30% was used for medical research to develop prevention and immunization against polio.

The Beginnings

The story of how FDR created the conditions for the conquest of polio begins in 1921, when he was stricken with infantile paralysis. After the critical phase had passed, Roosevelt began an extensive correspondence with polio victims across America, and with the doctors treating them, a practice he continued throughout the rest of his life. At first, he was seeking advice and exchanging ideas, but gradually through his work at Warm Springs he became an innovator in rehabilitative medicine and was providing advice to others.

Roosevelt first learned of Warm Springs in a letter from his friend George Foster Peabody, who was the co-owner of a run-down hotel there, a resort which had seen its heyday before the Civil War. Peabody told FDR about a young man, Lewis Joseph, who had been confined to a wheelchair by a serious childhood case of polio. But after Lewis swam in the mineral-rich, 88-degree waters of Warm Springs, he was able to abandon the wheelchair and walk with the aid of two canes.

How FDR Conquered Polio--Twice!

FDR swims at Warm Springs.

Roosevelt, who had tried every possible available remedy for polio, to no avail, travelled to Georgia, and met with Lewis. FDR found that the buoyant water would hold him up so that he could actually walk in the pool and exercise for up to two hours. He set up residence in a cottage at Warm Springs, and when the Atlanta Journal learned of the former Vice-Presidential candidate’s presence at Warm Springs, it sent a reporter there to do a story. The article he wrote for the paper’s Sunday magazine of Oct. 26, 1924, was entitled “Franklin D. Roosevelt Will Swim to Health,” and was syndicated nationwide. Soon letters from polio sufferers poured into Warm Springs, and ten patients arrived at the train station unannounced.

The aging inn and cottages at Warm Springs were designed as a resort, not a medical facility, but Roosevelt threw himself, crippled as he was, into the task of organizing a transformation. Patients were boarded with the townspeople until repairs were made to the cottages and inn. FDR planned exercise sessions in the pool, and led them himself. By the summer of 1925, there were more than 25 patients at Warm Springs.

How FDR Conquered Polio--Twice!

FDR with children at Warm Springs.

Roosevelt had ramps built into the old inn, supervised the repair of cottages, and designed a treatment table 12 inches below the surface of the pool, which became the model for the standard equipment of all water therapy. He also worked closely with the patients to create exercises and treatment procedures. In that process, he drew up a muscle chart which he used to test the patients’ muscle strength on a regular basis, in order to record any gain or loss of strength from a particular therapy. The patients jokingly called him “Doctor Roosevelt.” The appellation stuck, and reporters during the 1930s called FDR “Doctor New Deal,” while during World War II, he was described as “Doctor Win-the-War.”

Creating the Warm Springs Resort

In the spring of 1926, Roosevelt paid $200,000, more than two-thirds of his personal fortune, for the purchase of the Warm Springs Resort. He had planned to finance the rehabilitation side of Warm Springs by attracting wealthy vacationers to its resort. But the inn’s healthy patrons complained constantly about having to share the pool or dine with the polio victims. So, in February of 1927, FDR, and his friend and law partner Basil O’Connor, established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation as a nonprofit permanent institution which could accept charitable contributions. The Foundation bought Warm Springs from Franklin Roosevelt for a one-dollar demand note, and the vacationers at the inn were sent packing.

Roosevelt then brought in an orthopedic specialist from the New York Department of Health to be the resident physician, along with a trained physical therapist. When the doctor’s report showed that all 23 polio cases had shown marked improvement, the American Orthopedic Association, which at first had rebuffed Roosevelt, endorsed “the establishment of a permanent hydrotherapeutic center at Warm Springs.”

How FDR Conquered Polio--Twice!

The pool at Warm Springs

Money now had to be raised for the center, especially to support patients who could not afford the treatment, even though it was given at cost. Roosevelt stated that he “wouldn’t want anyone to be sent away for lack of money.” A fundraising brochure was produced, which contained a description of what made Warm Springs so different: “To the special methods of treatment must be added the psychological effect of the group treatment, the stimulus caused by a number of people pursuing the same end, and each spurring the other on to more and better effort.”

Because of the prejudice against polio sufferers and crippled people in general during the 1920s, most victims had been isolated, shut up in back bedrooms, or left languishing in grim “hospitals for the crippled.” When they came to Warm Springs, fun, laughter. and companionship often worked magic on them, and increased their ability to function. The classes on using muscles for everyday practical activities were usually the occasion for much laughter, since severe paralysis can cause absurd predicaments and everyone could recognize themselves in their fellow-patients’ difficulties.

As the Foundation’s reputation grew, physical therapists from across the nation applied for admission to its training programs. The brace shop also acquired a national reputation for excellence and innovation in prosthetic devices. Many of the staff members published articles in professional medical journals. The physical plant grew as FDR called in architect Henry Toombs, and together they drew up a master plan for the next 20 years.

When Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York in 1928, he was able to spend much less time at Warm Springs, but he consulted frequently with O’Connor and maintained his fight to gain competent treatment for the paralyzed. His 1929 message to the New York Legislature contained a startling proposal: “I conceive it to be the duty of the State to give the same care to removing the physical handicaps of its citizens as it now gives to their mental development. Universal education of the mind is, after all, a modern conception. We have reached the time now when we must recognize the same obligation of the State to restore to useful activity those children and adults who have the misfortune to be crippled.”

Toward the Polio Vaccine

The Great Depression ended any possibility that New York would act on the proposal, and it also made fundraising for Warm Springs difficult. But when Roosevelt became President in 1933, the idea of a Birthday Ball was proposed in order to keep Warm Springs going, and the results were a success. Soon, money actually went to FDR. To protect the fight against polio, Roosevelt announced, in 1937, the creation of the nonpartisan National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.[1] “The general purpose of the new foundation,” he said, “will be to lead, direct, and unify the fight on every phase of this sickness.”

Roosevelt’s friend Basil O’Connor became president of the foundation, and local committees were set up in each of the nation’s more than 3,000 counties. O’Connor established panels of outstanding doctors and scientists to review all policies and all grant proposals. But full control stayed in the hands of laymen, for the foundation was an organization of volunteer citizens. The foundation also established fellowship programs for doctors and scientists. An early beneficiary was a young doctor named Jonas Salk, who had helped to develop an influenza vaccine at the University of Michigan.

When World War II broke out, Roosevelt and O’Connor debated whether they should suspend the Birthday Balls for the duration, but they decided to go ahead. FDR had said that he wanted to make “the country as conscious about polio as it is about T.B.” He succeeded; Americans not only became more conscious of polio, but also were determined to eradicate it. The National Foundation was able to raise $5 million in 1943, which grew to $18 million in 1945.

How FDR Conquered Polio--Twice!

Jonas Salk, developer of the anti-polio vaccine.

After Roosevelt’s death and the end of the war in 1945, the National Foundation undertook a massive research effort to develop a polio vaccine. By 1950, testing of Dr. Salk’s vaccine had begun, and O’Connor authorized the Foundation to go into debt in order to produce the vaccine, and to finance the final trials. On April 12, 1955, the tenth anniversary of Roosevelt’s death, the Foundation announced that the field trials had proved that polio could be prevented.

Years before, Roosevelt had written a tribute to the Mayo brothers, the founders of Mayo Clinic, that could just as well be applied to his battle to conquer polio for humanity:

Those of us who are concerned with the problems of government and of economics are under special obligation to modern medicine in two very important respects. In the first place, it has taught us that with patience and application and skill and courage it is possible for human beings to control and improve conditions under which they live. It has taught us how science may be made the servant of a richer, more complete common life. And it has taught us more than that, because from it we have learned 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.

[1] The Foundation is best known for its March of Dimes campaign, which raised awareness and funds for the campaign against polio.

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