Wednesday, Jun. 24, 2009

The Other War — on Polio

Few people ever called Franklin Roosevelt nuts. But when it came to the topic of polio — at least his particular case of polio — nuts was what he was. That turned out to be a very good thing.

Roosevelt, 39, was at the cusp of middle age when he contracted the disease also known as infantile paralysis. He was a vigorous and almost insolently healthy man, not given easily to illness. So when he took sick in the summer of 1921 and his doctors told him he had forever lost the use of his legs because of a children's virus, he was not inclined to accept the finality of the thing.

As soon as he was able, Roosevelt embarked on a frantic search for a cure. There were electric belts and healing lights and all manner of massages and muscle packs. It was only when he visited the Meriwether Inn at Warm Springs, Ga., in 1924 that things began to change — if not for Roosevelt, then for science. The town's eponymous springs were said to cure uncounted ills — from liver disease and rheumatism to polio. It was impossible to know from a single dip if that was true, but the hot, mineral-rich waters made Roosevelt feel grand. Like the wealthy man he was, he bought the place.

The inn and the land around it, the new owner decided, would be turned into a rehabilitation facility for polio patients. Surgery would be performed to loosen locked muscles and joints. Training would be offered to improve mobility and strength. What's more, money would be no bar to admission. Wealthy folks would pay the full $47-per-week fee; poorer folks would pay half; still poorer ones would pay nothing. The democratic pricing model was a great way to help patients, but also a great way to go broke. Roosevelt tapped friends, charities and his bank account to keep the bills paid.

When he got to the White House in 1933, he and his staff had another idea: Why not take advantage of the people's love for their new President by holding a series of galas around the country on his birthday? The balls could be used both to fete Roosevelt and as an occasion to raise donations for his favorite charity. On Jan. 30, 1934, the first of the annual Birthday Balls was held, generating a then staggering $1 million. "As the representative of hundreds of thousands of crippled children," the 52-year-old President said in a radio address, "I accept this tribute."

While Roosevelt was open about discussing his affliction, displaying it was another matter. The White House was never at a loss for pictures of the President standing, waving and looking well — his legs held rigid by braces, his hand discreetly holding a railing or an aide's arm — but forbade cameramen to capture him in his wheelchair. The press, seduced by Roosevelt's affability, went along.

In 1937, Roosevelt stepped up the pressure on polio, creating the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, a group that would gather some of the best medical minds in the world with the goal of finally stopping the scourge. The foundation would be funded entirely by donations — a dime at a time, if need be.

Before long, penny postcards with dimes taped to them began pouring in to the White House. Entertainer Eddie Cantor was hired as a pitchman for the cause, and one of the first things he did was recommend that the foundation bury its long, charmless name. Lifting phrasing from the March of Time newsreels then playing in theaters, he recommended the March of Dimes. The name stuck.

The President would spend the following years ending a depression and fighting a war but also remaining involved in even the minute details of running the March of Dimes. "As you know, I am a crank on keeping the pool open," he wrote to foundation director Basil O'Connor when there was a staffing problem at Warm Springs. "I think two able-bodied women could run it!" He wrote that letter on March 13, 1944, 10 weeks before the D-day invasion.

Warm Springs also provided Roosevelt with his rest. It was there — and only there — that he would wheel about openly in his chair. And it was there that he died on April 12, 1945. Another full decade — to the day — would pass before the foundation he created would report that Dr. Jonas Salk's experimental polio vaccine worked. By 1961, polio was all but eradicated in the U.S. Forty summers earlier, Roosevelt had taken his last unassisted steps. The children who came later would be spared the pain the President suffered.