What FDR’s Polio Crusade Teaches Us About Presidential Leadership in Times of Crisis

What FDR’s Polio Crusade Teaches Us About Presidential Leadership in Times of Crisis

Photo/FDR Presidential Library and Museum

FDR with patients at The Pines in Berkeley Springs

By Thomas DohertyMay 12, 2020

Thomas Doherty is a professor of american studies in Brandeis. This article is republished from The conversation.

For much of the last century, a deadly and terrifying virus besieged America. Then, as now, fear of contagion gripped ordinary Americans. And then – unlike now – a president showed decisive leadership in the fight against the virus, maintaining an unflinching good mood and leaving immunology to the experts.

The scourge was infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was its most famous victim. First described clinically in the late 19th century and persisting into the 20th century, the virus invaded the nervous system and destroyed nerve cells that stimulate muscle fibers, leading to irreversible paralysis and sometimes death.

The tally of grief and death was staggering. In “Polio: An American Story,” historian David M. Oshinsky ’71 recounts the loss. In 1949, of the 428 cases recorded during an epidemic in San Angela, Texas, 84 victims – mostly children – remained paralyzed and 28 died.

In 1946, there were 25,000 reported cases across the country. By 1952, the figure had risen to 58,000. Unlike the Spanish flu, whose particular horror was to strike healthy people in their prime, and COVID-19, which exposes the elderly to greatest risk, polio primarily targeted children, crippling and killing with what seemed almost premeditated malice. Always on the lookout for symptoms, generations of parents felt their own chills when a child caught a cold, complained of a headache or had a stiff neck.

In this sense, FDR was both a statistical anomaly and a lesson in caution. He was stricken with the disease in 1921, at the age of 39, grim proof that wealth and privilege granted no immunity. Against all odds, he was elected governor of New York in 1928 and, in 1932, for the first of four terms as president. During his first presidential campaign, Republicans whispered that a “cripple” in a wheelchair was unfit for the duties of the presidency.

“It’s perfectly obvious that you don’t have to be an acrobat to be president,” scolded Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

FDR’s Personal Crusade

As president, FDR has made polio eradication his personal concern. For media historians like me, FDR has always been a dominant figure for his prescient orchestration of electronic media – in this case, radio – to forge his personality and advance his policies. “My friends,” he began intimately, in his soothing, conversational “fireside chats.” Less well known, perhaps, is his pioneering role as executive producer of evergreen programming: celebrity-driven fundraising.

Beginning in 1934, he dedicated his birthday, January 30, to a nationwide series of charity galas and “birthday balls” held to benefit the Warm Springs Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, named after the treatment site of polio in Georgia which he had been visiting since 1924. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt — not just FDR’s mighty right-hand man, but also his legs — usually took on hostess duties, circulating among the guests and jostling the halls of capital ball.

And what beautiful holidays they were. The 1937 party drew 15,000 donors and lookie-loos to get a glimpse of top attractions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars Jean Harlow and Robert Taylor. FDR called the money raised at the annual events his “best birthday gifts,” but he was not shy about accepting other party favors. “Surround me with pretty girls at lunch,” he ordered the organizers of the 1941 celebration – and he was seated between Lana Turner and Maureen O’Hara, as a bewildered Variety magazine article recalled in 1945.

In 1937, FDR announced the creation of a new charity created expressly “to lead, direct and unite the struggle on every phase of this disease”. It was called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, but everyone knew it as the March of Dimes.

Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House portico with celebrities attending the 1937 President’s Birthday Ball. Library of Congress/Harris & Ewing

Radio and movie superstar Eddie Cantor coined the phrase in 1938. He believed that even depression-battered Americans wouldn’t mind a penny for a worthy cause. Cantor’s annual March of Dimes variety shows were simulcast by all major radio networks, featured the biggest artists of the day, and set a pattern for every all-star telethon aired by the radio successor.

“A small change in the big ones will mean a big change in the little ones!” chirped Molly of radio duo Fibber McGee and Molly, The Hollywood Reporter reported in January 1942. Dime by dime, the campaigns brought in millions.

However, as with the victory over Japan and Germany in World War II, the polio conquest was a surrender ceremony that FDR did not witness. On April 12, 1945, he died of a stroke while visiting the Warm Springs Spa.

Repurposed now as a fitting memorial for the late President, the March of Dimes campaign continued. And, ultimately, the medical research he supported paid off. On April 12, 1955, the 10th anniversary of FDR’s death, field trials of the oral vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk were declared a success. A wave of national jubilation ensued.

At that time, there was no anti-vaxxer: almost every American knew someone who had been hit. By the mid-1960s, with an easier-to-administer oral vaccine introduced by Dr. Albert Sabin in 1961, poliomyelitis had been effectively eliminated as a public health threat in the United States. It now exists only in isolated pockets in the poorest regions of developing countries. .

A painful salvation

Shortly after the success of the Salk vaccine, FDR’s fight against polio received an elegiac salute in Dore Schary’s play “Sunrise at Campobello”, named after the island off the coast of New Brunswick where FDR was hit for the first time. It showed the late president as Americans have never seen him – flat on his back, carried on a stretcher, falling on his face and crawling backwards down the stairs – before he reappeared in public life. , with suspenders and crutches, at the 1924 Democratic Convention.

A generation of hardened theater critics became sentimental over the portrayal of a president many had voted for four times. A “deeply moving chronicle…of a vigorous man stricken with a terrible disease”, writes Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. “What came up from the sick chair was bigger than what went up there.”

“Sunrise at Campobello” opened on Broadway on January 30, 1958 – the president’s birthday – and the film version premiered in New York on September 23, 1960, in time to give another credential Democratic patrician then Liberal presidential candidate a surrogate. increase. Proceeds from the opening night of the stage and film versions were donated, of course, to the March of Dimes. It was a reminder of the other great battle that FDR fought, in public and in private.

Kevin E. Boling