Franklin Roosevelt: Political Implications of his Polio

A severe attack of poliomyelitis in 1921 resulted in total paralysis of both legs to the hips. FDR was 39 years old in 1921 1 SEE BELOW. Eleanor Roosevelt thought FDR's polio was "a turning point" that "proved a blessing in disguise; for it gave him strength and courage he had not had before" 2a.

The White House seamstress, who used crutches because of polio she contracted at age 6 and whom FDR nicknamed "Little Girl," described an interaction with Roosevelt that started light-hearted, but then: "Before the President wheeled away from me ... he became very serious for a moment. `Little Girl, you know and I know that one can overcome anything`" 3a. She was the only person, besides Roosevelt, allowed to use the White House elevator 3b. She also reported that occasionally he would "revolt against his wheelchair, and the fates that had put him there; then he would complain and become irritable," but this was treatable with a rubdown to soothe his muscles 3c. His lack of mobility gave him a special fear of being trapped in a fire, unable to escape -- this at a time when inspectors from the Interior Department called the White House a fire trap -- prompting the Secret Service to install special chutes to get him rapidly from his window to the ground 3d.

Comment: FDR's polio led him to lavishly fund polio research which, in turn, led to the vaccine 4 and, some say, to modern molecular biology. [McKusick in Lincoln article]

As President, Roosevelt's train journeys were limited to 35 miles per hour to minimize his discomfort from the vibration of the car 5. (Perhaps his muscles were weak to the point they couldn't buffer the impact, or they were so wasted that he had no cushion.)

Today it is commonly said that FDR's polio was unknown at the time of his election. Of course, those around him knew. Moreover, they talked about its possible effect on his Presidency.

Henry L. Stoddard, editor of a New York newspaper, had the following conversation with Calvin Coolidge during FDR's first run for the White House in 1932 6a:

"If [FDR is elected]," said Mr. Coolidge, "we will be taking in America the biggest gamble in government that any people ever took."'

"You refer to Roosevelt's disability?" I asked.

"Yes -- that is part of the gamble," he replied. "Roosevelt has shown a great fighting spirit. I admire him for it, but he must have even greater courage to undertake what is ahead of any man the next four years. He will need greater strength, too. I know the burdens of the Presidency even [sic] in good times; in this situation they will be tremendous. There is almost an even chance that neither he nor any man in stronger health can stand the strain -- and that chance is a good deal for a nation deliberately to face with all our other uncertainties."

Cited Sources
  1. Bruenn, HG. Clinical notes on the illness and death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ann Int Med. 1970;72: 579-591. Pubmed: 4908628.
  2. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.
    a  p.198
  3. Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961.
    a  p.42  b  p.43  c  pp.236-237  d  p.237

    Comment: This book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks, prompting Jacqueline Kennedy to require all staff at the White House to sign a pledge agreeing not to write about their experiences (NY Times, page B8, Nov. 12, 1997). Parks's mother, a maid at the White House from 1909-1939, had actually been encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to write and publish a memoir (p260).

  4. Katz, SL. From culture to vaccine -- Salk and Sabin. New England Journal of Medicine. 2004; 351: 1485-1487.
  5. Bollet, Alfred Jay. Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease. Revised edition. New York: Demos, 2004.

    Comment: As reviewed in New Engl J Med. 2005;352:1055-1056.

  6. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.
    a  p.141

    Comment: Stoddard was editor and owner of the New York Evening Mail from 1900 to 1925.

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