Which President was diagnosed with polio at the age of 39?

Answer: Franklin D. Roosevelt

FDR’s paralytic illness began in 1921 when Roosevelt and his family were vacationing at their summer home on Campobello Island. At the age of 39, the future President was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, or polio, from which he would never fully recover. The disease left Roosevelt paralyzed from the waist down.

At the time (per the note in our newsletter about what happened on this day in the 1950s) there was no cure available, which led Roosevelt to try a multitude of therapies in order to ease the pain and potentially cure the disease. FDR taught himself how to walk very short distances with braces on his legs, and carried a cane for support when standing, but most importantly, he was extremely careful to not be seen using his wheelchair in public. He felt it was a sign of weakness, and was able to convince people that he was getting better. During speeches he generally appeared in an upright, standing position, requesting sturdy lecterns so that he could use his upper body to support himself. While use of his hands didn’t completely escape him, he was known to use head motions more during speeches because he was using his arms to support himself.

In 1934, FDR celebrated the first Birthday Ball, which was held in over 4,000 communities to both celebrate Roosevelt’s birthday and raise awareness for the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, which served as a treatment center for polio in the early days. The first birthday ball raised over $1M. Four years later, FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which was an extension of his previous efforts for Georgia Warm Springs.

Marketing efforts were led by radio host and fellow philanthropist, Eddie Cantor, who used the air waves to tell Americans to send their loose change to the President for this endeavor. Cantor’s call for a “march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House” helped raise $18.9M for FDR’s foundation, and ultimately became the new name of the organization that would support the research and development of the polio vaccine. Ultimately, as mentioned in our newsletter, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine and began trial runs on April 26th, 1954 in McLean, Virginia. Roosevelt would never live to see a cure, but his affliction and subsequent fight against the disease lead to the virtual eradication of the disease in the developed world. 

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