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Foundations of a Public Life:  Polio


"I think probably the thing that took the most courage in his life was his mastery and his meeting of polio."

     - Eleanor Roosevelt

Handsome, accomplished, and fun-loving, Franklin Roosevelt led a charmed life. Family wealth and social connections placed him among the nation's elite. A famous surname helped launch his political career. Not yet 40 years old, he had worked at the highest levels of American government and run for vice president. The presidency itself seemed within reach.

But in August 1921 everything changed.

Polio & Paralysis

On August 10, 1921, FDR spent a strenuous day sailing and swimming near his family's summer home on Campobello Island. Tired and feverish, he went to bed early, not realizing he was suffering the first symptoms of a polio attack.

Polio left him permanently paralyzed below the waist. Eventually, he learned to stand and move using leg braces and crutches. He developed his arms, chest, and torso so he could appear to "walk" short distances in public, using a cane and gripping a companion's arm. Much of the therapy that led to these accomplishments took place at a center for treatment of polio patients that FDR established in Warm Springs, Georgia in 1927. He spent time there each year for the rest of his life.

The March of Dimes and FDR

In 1934, FDR began using the occasion of his birthday to encourage Americans to hold "Birthday Balls" to raise funds for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which operated the polio rehabilitation center he had established in 1927.

In 1938, he created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to support the Warm Springs center and aid polio victims around the nation. The Foundation urged Americans to send their loose change to the President in "a march of dimes." The March of Dimes (as the National Foundation became known) supported the research and development of a polio vaccine by Jonas Salk in 1955 that eradicated the disease throughout most of the world. The March of Dimes continues today and focuses on premature birth and birth defects.

FDR's Leg Braces

FDR could not stand without the support of leg braces that locked at his knees and weighed up to ten pounds. Because of the discomfort they caused, he generally used his braces only when making public appearances. He projected a smiling image despite the difficulty of standing and moving with the braces. To learn more about FDR's Leg Braces, visit our Digital Artifact Collection.
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