What the FDR polio crusade tells us about presidential leadership in times of crisis


For much of the last century, a deadly and terrifying virus has besieged America. Then as today, the fear of contagion seized ordinary Americans. And then, unlike now, a president has shown decisive leadership in the fight against the virus, maintaining a rock-solid good mood and leaving immunology to the experts.

The scourge was childhood paralysis, or polio, 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 the nerve cells that stimulate muscle fibers, resulting in irreversible paralysis and sometimes death.

The tally of grief and death was astounding. In “Polio: an American storyHistorian David M. Oshinsky 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, 25,000 cases were reported 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 the prime of life, and COVID-19, which runs the biggest risk to the elderly, polio primarily targeted children, crippling and killing with what seemed almost premeditated nastiness. Always on the lookout for symptoms, generations of parents have felt a chill when a child has caught a cold, complains of a headache or a stiff neck.

In this sense, the FDR was both a statistical anomaly and a warning. He became ill 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 person in a wheelchair “paralyze” was unfit for the functions of the presidency.

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

FDR’s personal crusade

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

From 1934, he dedicated his birthday, January 30, to a national series of charity galas and “birthday balls” organized for the benefit of the Warm Springs Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, named after the polio treatment site in Georgia he had been visiting since 1924. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – not just FDR’s mighty right-hand man, but also her legs – usually served as hostess, circulating among the guests and going back and forth between ballrooms around the capital.

And what a great night they were. The 1937 party drew 15,000 donors and anglers to preview major attractions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars Jean Harlow and Robert Taylor. FDR called the money raised at the annual events “the best birthday gifts”, but he didn’t hesitate to accept other gifts. “Surround me with pretty girls at lunch,” he asked the organizers of the 1941 celebration – and he was seated between Lana Turner and Maureen O’Hara, as a perplexed article in Variety magazine recalled in 1945.

In 1937, FDR announced the creation of a new charity created expressly “for lead, lead and unify the fight on each phase of this disease. It was called the National Foundation for Childhood Paralysis, but everyone knew it as the March of Dimes.

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

Radio and movie superstar Eddie Cantor coined the phrase in 1938. He felt that even depressed Americans wouldn’t balk a dime at a good cause. Cantor’s annual March of Dimes variety shows were broadcast simultaneously by all major radio networks, featured the day’s biggest performers, and set a pattern for each All-Star Telethon broadcast by the successor to the radio.

“A small change from the big people will mean a big change from the little ones! Chirped Molly of the radio duo Fibber McGee and Molly, reported by The Hollywood Reporter in January 1942. Ten cents a hundred, campaigns raised millions.

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

Reused now as an appropriate memorial to the former president, the March of Dimes campaign continued. And, ultimately, the medical research it supported paid off. On April 12, 1955, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of FDR’s death, the field tests for the oral vaccine developed by Dr Jonas Salk were declared successful. A national wave jubilation ensued.

At that time, anti-vaccines did not exist: almost all Americans knew someone who had been affected. In the mid-1960s, with an easier-to-administer oral vaccine introduced by Dr Albert Sabin in 1961, polio had been effectively eliminated as a threat to public health in the United States. only exists in isolated pockets in the poorest regions of developing countries.

A sad greeting

Shortly after the success of the Salk vaccine, FDR’s fight against polio received an elegiac salute in Dore Schary’s play “Sunrise in CampobelloFrom the name of the island off the coast of New Brunswick where FDR was first affected. It showed the late president when Americans had 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 braces and crutches, at the Democratic Convention of 1924.

A generation of staunch theater critics has grown sentimental over the portrayal of a president many voted for four times. A “deeply moving chronicle … of a vigorous man struck down by a terrible disease”, wrote Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times. “What rose from the sick man’s chair was greater than what rose to it.”

“Sunrise in 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 a boost to another patrician Democrat with liberal references then running for the presidency. The proceeds from the opening night of the stage and screen versions were of course donated to the March of Dimes. It was a reminder of the other great battle that FDR fought, in public and in private.

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Kevin E. Boling

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