On This Day in History: FDR & Polio

From Left to Right: Kenna, Anthony, and Sarveshwar

From Left to Right: Kenna, Anthony, and Sarveshwar

FDR Contracts Polio: August 10th, 1921

97 years ago today FDR became afflicted by polio. We, the 2018 Four Freedoms High School Interns, each researched a different topic related to this subject. Read below to discover what we learned!






Polio and its History: by Anthony


Poliomyelitis, a viral infection caused by the poliovirus, has been around for hundreds of years. However, it was during the early 1900s that the virus spread like wildfire across the nation. The disease was highly contagious at the time; one statistic outlines that polio caused the death of 6,000 Americans in the year of 1916 alone. Polio begins its journey at the mouth, moves towards the throat, travels to the stomach and eventually into the central nervous system. This is where the virus inflicts catastrophic damage to the body; it spreads internally as it does externally, at a rapid pace. Once the virus attacks the central nervous system, it targets its motor neurons causing damage to the spine and brain stem. It is now a devastating situation as muscles begin to weaken and they turn to a paralytic state. This is when the recognizable polio comes to be: infected patients begin to have trouble moving muscles from both the lower and upper body. Not only do they run a risk of not moving, but death too as polio can also prevent the respiratory muscles and heart from functioning.

Polio was a devastating virus that affected many from the general public to our thirty-second president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The virus found a cure in 1955 and was eradicated in the U.S twenty-two years later on 1979. Nevertheless, the virus was a devastating epidemic in United States history, even if it’s muscle paralytic symptoms only affected 0.5% of the infected population. Unfortunately, polio can still be found in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan today, but hopefully one day the disease’s centuries long run is eradicated for good.


How Does FDR Contract Polio?: by Sarveshwar

FDR and family at Campobello in 1920, a year before he would contract polio.

FDR and family at Campobello in 1920, a year before he would contract polio.

1921. Age 39. The future President of the United States contracts polio. Franklin D. Roosevelt is left paralyzed from his waist down in the prime years of his life.

It all began on a summer day at Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine. His family and himself decided to take some time off and relax at their vacation home on the island and so they did. Before getting to the island however, F.D.R fell into the Bay of Fundy as the boat traveling to the island sailed. The water was cold as ice and was decades later found to contain various toxic chemicals. This is where the trouble began.

The next day was a day filled with many physical activities. F.D.R was a very active man and enjoyed being so. As the day came to an end, he began to suffer from severe chills, nausea and pains in his lower back. These symptoms lasted all the way into the next few days. His body became weaker and weaker. His body from waist down slowly weakening then becoming completely paralyzed.

This however didn’t shake his ambitions or goals as seen by his legacy that was left behind.


FDR's Response to Contracting Polio: by Kenna

Rare photograph of FDR showing him being assisted out of his car, 1932.

Rare photograph of FDR showing him being assisted out of his car, 1932.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was hardly ever photographed in the wheelchair he often used because of his immobility due to polio. Photographs in the White House during his four terms depicted him seated, most times in a car, or gripping onto lecterns. His secret service managed to keep his illness out of the eye of the public. Roosevelt preferred not to bring great awareness to his polio symptoms. Although he didn't like drawing much attention to himself and his illness, he made such an effort to assist those who were victims of this disease. In 1926, he started the non-profit Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and in 1938 he reinvented the charity as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The NFIT was an organization that worked towards helping people who were affected with polio through rehab, strongly fought to combat it, and funded research for polio vaccines. The organization is now known as the March of Dimes. Despite Roosevelt’s decision to hide his disease, it did not restrict him from creating a change, as a great president and as a survivor himself. Polio did not define him because he didn't allow it to, he went on, led a county and left behind a great legacy. Some would only wish to be as great of a person as he was.