100 Years Since FDR Contracted Polio

It has been a century since the onset of the president’s paralyzing illness. What if he had been more forthcoming about it?

100 Years Since FDR Contracted Polio
Memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Washington, D.C. / Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

The name Franklin Delano Roosevelt is often associated with the New Deal or his work to defeat the Axis forces during World War II. Not many people would connect him with the words “disabled,” “paralyzed” or “wheelchair user,” since his inability to walk was hidden from the public eye. Although the American public was aware that Roosevelt had been a victim of the poliomyelitis virus, the extent of his affliction was unseen by most.

Last August marked 100 years since the Roosevelt family was vacationing at their Campobello Island cottage off the coast of New Brunswick when Roosevelt suddenly fell ill with an unknown sickness. After a misdiagnosis, Roosevelt was found to be suffering from polio, which paralyzed him from the waist down for the rest of his life. Americans were all too aware of the dangers of this disease.

Yet FDR tried his utmost to hide his condition, a fact that raises questions about his legacy. The modern world is a much better place for people with disabilities like FDR’s, but the improvement could have come sooner had he leveled with the American people. Admitting vulnerability could have signaled strength more than playing the rugged individualist. And it might have spared decades of social stigma for people with disabilities.

In 1916, the state of New York suffered through a polio epidemic that claimed over 6,000 lives and left thousands more permanently paralyzed.

Five years later, in the summer of 1921, Roosevelt was 39 and setting his sights on furthering his political career. The previous fall, the onetime New York state senator and assistant Navy secretary had run as the vice presidential nominee on what turned out to be the Democratic Party’s losing ticket. Despite his new physical problem, he was determined to continue in politics.

Following his diagnosis, however, Roosevelt decided to step back from the public eye to focus on rehabilitation. Roosevelt’s mother was in favor of him giving up his career aspirations and staying at home with her. His wife, Eleanor, held the opposite opinion, and she encouraged her husband to pursue his dreams.

Roosevelt’s illness made headlines across America, but there was no mention of his paralysis. Desperate for a cure and unable to accept his disability, Roosevelt tried everything to restore his leg function. In 1926, he traveled for the first time to the Warm Springs resort in Georgia, hoping that the mineral water would heal him.

Although the waters didn’t have the intended effect, Roosevelt developed an attachment to Warm Springs and bought the resort in 1927, remaking it into a rehabilitation center for polio victims. At the resort, Roosevelt used the buoyancy of the mineral waters to exercise his muscles.

By the time Roosevelt made his return to politics in 1928, he had spent the past seven years constructing a method to give the impression that he could walk. Roosevelt had built up a lot of upper-body strength and was able to hold himself up with the help of tight leg braces and a strong companion to support his weight. Roosevelt endeavored to use this method for every public speech he gave until his death in 1945.

Spending so much time and effort hiding his impairment may have been better spent on making the world more accessible for himself and other disabled people, but it was more important to Roosevelt to be perceived as a strong and able leader.

Despite the lengths Roosevelt went to in order to appear able-bodied, the media often speculated on his health and his ability to lead the country.

To stop once and for all any rumors surrounding his health, Roosevelt and his wife enlisted a freelance journalist, Earl Looker, to convince the American public of Roosevelt’s fitness and ability to run for office. In 1931, a year before Roosevelt’s election as president, Looker called on him to prove his physical wellness by gathering a committee of three expert physicians and specialists to independently certify his health. Roosevelt agreed and returned from this examination with a full bill of health. Looker published the results of this and the doctors’ findings in Liberty magazine on July 15, 1931, in an article entitled “Is Franklin Roosevelt Physically Fit to Be President?”

The plot hatched between Looker and Roosevelt largely succeeded and made future discussions about his health in the media taboo. It marked the beginning of a trend of deception and carefully choreographed media relations that would continue throughout Roosevelt’s political career.

Discouraged from doing so by FDR’s handlers, the American press corps refrained from writing about his paralysis or photographing him in his wheelchair. A modern-day American president would not have escaped intrusion and speculation about their personal life in the way that Roosevelt and other presidents before him did.

Would the American public have thought so positively and fondly about Roosevelt had he not gone to these lengths to conceal his disability? We can speculate, but no answer is definitive.

Roosevelt used the media as a tool to portray an image of strength and good health to the American public to sustain their faith in him as a public figure. The United States experienced many difficulties as a nation during Roosevelt’s presidency. The country needed a strong, capable leader to steer the country away from the economic downturn and then global fascism.

Many commentators in recent decades, asserting that the public was totally unaware of FDR’s physical condition, have wondered whether, if they had been aware, they would have changed their minds about Roosevelt.

But despite FDR’s efforts at concealment, recent research indicates that the American public was not as in the dark about his disability as was previously assumed.

James Tobin, author of “The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency” (2012), asserts that the American public was aware that the president was disabled and that this played a key role in enabling Roosevelt’s rise to power. Other historians like Hugh Gregory Gallagher dispute this claim and maintain that the American public was unaware.

Whatever the truth about the public’s awareness, Roosevelt went to great lengths to camouflage his disability and reliance on a wheelchair. Was this behavior simply a product of the time? Would he have done the same thing in the modern world, which is more accessible and accommodating to disabled people?

In the 24 years during which Roosevelt was paralyzed, half were spent in the White House under the watchful gaze of the world’s media. Even when newspapers or magazines did mention Roosevelt’s disability or paralysis, there were twice as many sources to spin the president’s opaque narrative.

The U.S. was in tumult during virtually all of Roosevelt’s presidency, with the successive challenges of the Depression and a world war. It needed a strong leader who could boost morale. The narrative of Roosevelt becoming ill and then “overcoming” his disability was juxtaposed against the United States’ surviving economic depression and defeating fascism.

Roosevelt died unexpectedly in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945. The event shocked the American public, as the Roosevelt administration had persistently pushed the narrative that his health was fine. The White House released a statement on the same day, confirming Roosevelt’s death by a cerebral hemorrhage. Unbeknownst to Americans at the time, Roosevelt’s health had been deteriorating in the later years of his presidency.

The way in which Roosevelt was depicted was still a contentious issue, even decades after his death. In 1978, the planning for Roosevelt’s memorial in Washington began when American designer and architect Lawrence Halprin won a competition to design the memorial.

Early in the process, the designers decided not to depict Roosevelt using his wheelchair. This omission reflected the absence of the wheelchair in the public’s eye during Roosevelt’s life. John G. Parsons wrote that the memorial commission, having struggled with the question, eventually decided that “he should be commemorated the way he wished to be known to the public when he was in office — that is, not as a disabled person but as an able-bodied individual.”

It is worth noting that no members of this commission were wheelchair users and so they may not have realized the importance of calling attention to Roosevelt’s disability in the memorial.

The choice to exclude Roosevelt’s wheelchair irked disability activists, who claimed that the memorial was historically inaccurate and deceptive by failing to portray the true image of the president as he existed in his daily life. They further argued that the decision promoted the idea that disabilities are shameful and need to be hidden. In the 1994 version of his book “FDR’s Splendid Deception,” Gallagher commented on the decision to leave out any depiction of Roosevelt’s disability in the memorial: “The denial continues.”

Roosevelt had spent much of his adult life hiding the truth about his disability, so why should it be depicted in his memorial? Roosevelt’s grandson David B. Roosevelt was quoted saying that he did not want his grandfather to be a “poster child.” He said we should respect that his grandfather “worked hard to keep his physical limitations private.”

While the language used to speak about disabilities changed for the better in the latter part of the 20th century — words like “cripple” and “invalid” that were common in the ’40s and ’50s began to die out — being disabled still harbored negative connotations.

In the century since his illness, Roosevelt has become an important figure for the disability community. We can only speculate about why Roosevelt chose to conceal his disability from the public eye, because he never addressed the issue.

Roosevelt would be remembered as a devoted supporter of curing polio and raising money to help fund research. The president raised both research money and awareness through the March of Dimes campaign, which he founded. In 1955, 10 years after his death, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine.

If Roosevelt had been forthcoming about his disability, his stance would have directly taken on the mistaken societal belief of the time that people with disabilities were useless. Although this thinking remains the case among some today, prejudice against people with disabilities is not as blatant now, and opportunities exist to support disabled people to lead full and happy lives.

Roosevelt’s granddaughter Anne Roosevelt wrote a letter in 1996 advocating for the inclusion of Roosevelt’s wheelchair in his memorial. Speaking of her grandfather’s wishes, she said, “Were he alive today we are convinced that he would wish to have the people of this country and the world understand his disability. He would be comfortable, possibly eager, in light of current increased understanding of disability issues, to share awareness of his and other types of disabilities and others.”

In January 2001, four years after the original opening, a wheelchair was added to the memorial after the National Organization on Disability raised $1.65 million to fund the creation of an additional sculpture. Speaking at the dedication ceremony for the sculpture, President Bill Clinton referred to the legislation passed by Congress and said, “I’m pleased to offer this legislation so that generations of Americans will know that this great president was great with his disability.”

There has been a lot of progress in disability rights in the decades since Roosevelt’s death. In 1968 the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) was passed, mandating that federal buildings be physically accessible. Had Roosevelt’s wheelchair usage been common knowledge while he was in office, perhaps legislation like this would have been enacted decades before. This was the first of many disability-related pieces of legislation to be enacted in the U.S., including the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

Most significantly, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted, giving comprehensive protection and equality to people with disabilities. The U.S. was the first country to ratify such a set of rights and to give full legal equality to citizens with disabilities.

Acceptance of Roosevelt’s disability has been pushed forward by disability activists who are inspired by his willingness to strive for greatness and success even though society all but told him to give up.

Roosevelt has gone from being considered an inspiration for living despite his disability to being considered an inspiration for succeeding with a disability. The distinction is small but important.

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