On this day in 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio. He was left paralyzed from the waist down, but went on to become governor of New York and then president of the United States. He hid his disability from the public as much as possible, with the cooperation of the press, though he worked hard to fund research into the disease and to help polio victims.
When he was President he began the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (polio is also known as infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis.) The comedian Eddie Cantor suggested to FDR that he call the Foundation The March of Dimes and encourage people to send in one dime to fund it. In 1938 the March of Dimes made its first research grant and by 1955 it had raised 25.5 million dollars. His connection with the March of Dimes is why FDR’s face is on the dime, by the way. The first Roosevelt dimes were produced in 1946.
In 1955 the polio vaccine developed by Jonas Salk was determined to be safe and effective. The U.S. began a massive immunization campaign and the number of polio cases fell from 35,000 in 1953 to only 5,600 in 1957. By 1961 only 161 cases were reported in the country. The development of an oral vaccine by Albert Sabine helped to achieve the eradication of polio in the Americas, which was reached in 1994. Polio was eradicated in Europe in 2002. However, there are still areas of the world such as Pakistan, India and Nigeria where the disease persists. This is why we must continue to vaccinate our children. The World Health Organization says, “As long as a single child remains infected with polio, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease.”
I have a personal connection to polio, because my father contracted the disease when he was a boy. He was lucky, because although he had the most serious type that affects the body’s ability to regulate breathing and had to spend time in an iron lung, he eventually did recover completely. I wonder what it must have been like to be an active boy who was confined in an iron lung.
The polio vaccine is truly a marvel of modern medicine. It has saved many lives and saved even more from paralysis. We all owe thanks to FDR who inspired so many in the fight against polio and to Salk, Sabin and all the other scientists who worked so hard to develop a vaccine. With continued effort to eradicate the disease, we could see a world completely free from the scourge of polio.