Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralytic illness

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Rare photograph of FDR in a wheelchair, with Ruthie Bie and Fala, taken by his cousin Margaret Suckley (February 1941)

Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralytic illness began in 1921, when the future President of the United States was 39 years of age and vacationing with his family at their summer home on Campobello Island. Roosevelt was diagnosed with poliomyelitis two weeks after he fell ill. He was left with permanent paralysis from the waist down, and was unable to stand or walk without support. Despite the lack of a cure for paralysis he tried a wide range of therapies, and his belief in the benefits of hydrotherapy led him to found a center at Warm Springs, Georgia, in 1926. He laboriously taught himself to walk very short distances while wearing iron braces on his hips and legs by swiveling his torso, supporting himself with a cane, and he was careful never to be seen using his wheelchair in public. His bout with illness was well known before and during his Presidency and became a major part of his image, but the extent of his paralysis was kept from public view. A 2003 retrospective diagnosis of FDR's illness favored Guillain–Barré syndrome rather than polio, a conclusion criticized by other researchers.


The Roosevelt family at Campobello (1920)
Roosevelt supporting himself on crutches at Springwood in Hyde Park, New York, with visitors including Al Smith (August 7, 1924)
FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt at Hyde Park (September 16, 1927)
FDR at Warm Springs (1928)
FDR in his wheelchair aboard Vincent Astor's yacht, the Nourmahal (April 1935)
FDR in his wheelchair with a group assembling on the terrace of Springwood, before a Hudson River cruise on the USS Potomac (September 12, 1937)

In August 1921, 39-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the time a practicing lawyer in New York, joined his family at their vacation home at Campobello, a Canadian island off the coast of Maine. Several weeks before, his wife Eleanor had moved the household—including five children aged 5–15, a governess and her mother, and 40 to 50 trunks—to the remote island for the summer-long vacation. As he usually did, Roosevelt stayed behind until things got settled. As former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he spent two weeks in Washington, D.C., giving testimony to a Senate committee investigating a Navy scandal[1]:247–248 in mid-July.[2]:32 On July 28 he fulfilled a commitment associated with his recently being elected president of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts. He spent the following day in his New York City office, then went to his home in Hyde Park to review old Navy papers. A few days later, on August 5, FDR sailed up the New England coast with his friend and new employer, Van Lear Black, on Black's ocean-going yacht. Among those at Campobello when Roosevelt arrived were his political aide Louis Howe, his wife and their young son.[2]:40–42

Roosevelt spent a day talking business with Howe.[1]:248 Then, on August 10, he spent a day of strenuous activity with his family.[2]:47 Roosevelt soon exhibited an illness characterized by fever, ascending paralysis of the upper and lower extremities, facial paralysis, bowel and bladder dysfunction, and numbness and hypersensitivity of the skin. Most of the symptoms eventually resolved themselves, but he was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down.[3][4]:232


July 28[edit]

  • Newly elected chairman of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Roosevelt sailed on the steam yacht Pocantico from New York City to Bear Mountain State Park, with a number of wealthy businessmen and city officials.[2]:15 They docked in late afternoon for a picnic in a mess tent with 2,100 boys from New York and New Jersey. In autumn 1920, public health inspectors had documented that the park's water quality and sanitation had been compromised by its heavy use.[2]:28–29
  • Summer outbreaks of poliomyelitis became common in New York after an epidemic in 1916.[5] In July 1921, three cases were reported in New Jersey.[6] By late August some 100 cases were reported in the state of New York, and the state health commissioner advised parents to keep their children away from large gatherings and prevent them from becoming overfatigued.[7] In early September there were 419 cases, 178 of them in New York City.[8] By the end of the month, The New York Times was reporting the largest number of new polio cases recorded in any single week since the 1916 epidemic.[9]

July 29[edit]

  • FDR worked for a few hours at his office at the Fidelity & Deposit Company of Maryland, in the Equitable Building in Manhattan, assisted by his secretary Marguerite LeHand.[2]:31
  • Roosevelt went to the family home at Hyde Park, New York, where he reviewed papers related to a Navy scandal.[2]:31[10]:306 In the first days of August he returned to Manhattan. He prepared to join his family at their summer home—a large red cottage with 18 bedrooms[10]:305 and no electricity or telephone—at Campobello Island.[2]:40–41

August 5–8[edit]

  • Roosevelt left New York on board the Sabolo, a yacht owned by his employer and friend Van Lear Black. They sailed the Atlantic for two days, up the coast of Maine. FDR took the tiller as they approached the Lubec Channel, a narrow passage he knew well. They anchored in Passamaquoddy Bay.[2]:41–42
  • After arriving at Campobello, FDR talked business with his political advisor Louis Howe,[1]:248 who was there with his wife and young son. Although he told Eleanor that he was "logy and tired", Roosevelt wanted those aboard the Sabalo to have a fishing expedition. He had the yacht tender packed for it.[2]:42–43

August 9[edit]

  • Off the coast of Campobello, Roosevelt baited hooks for Black's fishing party, moving between the two cockpits of the yacht tender on a narrow plank.[2]:45–46, 58 Roosevelt fell into the cold waters of the Bay of Fundy.[4]:233

August 10[edit]

  • FDR, his wife Eleanor, their daughter Anna[2]:47 and sons James and Elliott spent the day on the family sailboat, the Vireo. On Cobscook Bay they went ashore on one of the islands and beat out a fire with pine boughs, then sailed back home. Roosevelt took his five children swimming at their favorite pond, then raced his sons the two miles back to their cottage. Afterward, Roosevelt complained of chills, nausea, and pain in his lower back. He skipped dinner and went to bed.[1]:252[11]:235[12] Chills lasted through the night.[2]:49

August 11[edit]

  • In the morning, as Roosevelt got out of bed, his right knee felt weak and he was unable to walk it off. He later told Eleanor he could not go on a camping trip they had planned, and complained of stabbing pain in the back of his legs. His temperature was 102 °F. Eleanor stayed behind with the other adults and the two younger children, Franklin Jr. and John, and sent the older children on their camping trip. As their boat was being packed Eleanor asked the fisherman helping them to speak to the doctor in the nearby village of Lubec and ask him to visit Campobello.[2]:49
  • Dr. Eben H. Bennet, a general practitioner the Roosevelts had known for years, visited FDR and diagnosed a bad summer cold.[2]:50[13]
  • By afternoon, Roosevelt's right knee would not support him when he tried to stand. By the evening his left knee was weakening.[2]:51[13]

August 12[edit]

  • Both of Roosevelt's legs felt rubbery upon his waking in the morning. His skin had sensation, but his legs were sluggish. Pain shot through his legs, feet and back. He became desperately anxious.[2]:51, 54
  • Bennet returned and according to Eleanor was "mystified" at FDR's symptoms.[2]:54 He suggested a consultation with Dr. William W. Keen, an eminent physician vacationing nearby.[13] Fifteen years retired and 84 years of age, Keen was a revered surgeon who was on the faculty while Bennet was studying medicine. He was also known for his discretion in cases involving prominent people in public life. Telephoning from Bennet's office, Howe located Keen at Bar Harbor.[2]:57–58
  • Roosevelt could not stand. He had bilateral paralysis. His legs were numb. He also had painful sensitivity to touch, general aches, and fever of 102 °F. He could not pass urine.[13] He was unable to tighten the muscles of his buttocks or abdomen. By evening he could not hold a pencil and his thumbs were affected.[2]:51

August 13[edit]

  • Roosevelt was paralyzed from the chest down. On that day and following, his hands, arms, and shoulders were weak. He had difficulty moving his bowels and required enemas.[4]:234
  • Keen traveled by car to Lubec, where he was met by Howe and a boat that ferried them to Campobello around 7:30 p.m. In Roosevelt's second-floor bedroom, Keen made what Eleanor described as "a most careful, thorough examination", and the household went to bed.[2]:57–58

August 14[edit]

  • Roosevelt continued to be unable to pass urine for two weeks, and required catheterization. His fever continued for six to seven days.[4]:234
  • Keen repeated his examination, a bending and prodding that Elliott later termed "excruciating" for his father.[2]:58
  • Keen diagnosed a clot of blood to the lower spinal cord, and prescribed massage of the leg muscles.[13] He attributed FDR's condition to the "chill and exposure" of August 9–10. In Roosevelt's presence he said the condition would be temporary, and that his ability to move the toes of one foot was a "very encouraging" sign that the clot was already being absorbed.[2]:58
  • Outside of Roosevelt's hearing, Keen told Eleanor that FDR may be paralyzed for months, that the clot might take a long time to be absorbed. Roosevelt would need to stay at Campobello for several weeks.[2]:58
  • Keen instructed Eleanor to send for a professional masseuse. In the interim, she and Howe were to alternate in rubbing Roosevelt's legs, to stimulate circulation that would aid in dissolving the blood clot. Inexplicably, Keen's diagnosis ignored the fact that Roosevelt's fever and chills indicated an infection rather than a blood clot.[2]:58–59
  • Eleanor and Howe considered how much to tell those who must be informed of Roosevelt's illness. Letters she wrote to most family members repeated Bennet's vague diagnosis that FDR was "ill from the effects of a chill". She wrote a letter to James Roosevelt Roosevelt, FDR's older half-brother Rosy, and asked him to meet Sara Delano Roosevelt, FDR's mother, when she returned from Europe on August 31. If he were unable to meet her ship, Eleanor would ask Sara's brother, Frederic Adrian Delano, Roosevelt's favorite uncle. Eleanor would write a brief letter that could be given to Sara.[2]:59–60
  • Howe started answering Roosevelt's mail, choosing the same careful phrases that Eleanor used, and writing that FDR was under doctor's orders "not to so much as look at the postage stamp on a letter for some time."[2]:61
  • Eleanor and Howe began massaging Roosevelt's legs as instructed by Keen, bringing on agonizing pain.[2]:60

August 15[edit]

  • Howe wrote a long letter to Fred Delano. Although Howe's letter was subsequently lost, Delano's response clearly indicates that Howe provided a detailed recounting of events and expressed doubts about Keen's diagnosis. Some of the Roosevelt children showed symptoms similar to FDR's—chills and fever—that could not be due to blood clots, and Howe wanted another opinion. Howe himself was needed at Campobello and could not search for another doctor, so he asked for Delano's help. He also shared his suspicions about infantile paralysis, which he had not mentioned to Eleanor.[2]:61–62
  • Prostrate and mildly sedated, Roosevelt was occasionally delirious.[2]:60

August 17[edit]

  • Eleanor received a lengthy letter from Keen in which he reconsidered his diagnosis. He now concluded that Roosevelt's condition was probably not due to a blood clot, and instead believed it could be the result of an inflammation of the spinal cord. He projected that the recovery "might be a longer business", and enclosed a bill for the startling amount of $600.[2]:62

August 19[edit]

  • Delano received Howe's letter at his home in Washington, D.C. He called his son-in-law, a physician, who recommended he speak to another physician, a Dr. Parker. Parker told Delano that the case sounded like infantile paralysis, and that the leading authorities on the disease were at the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission, at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. Delano caught a train and arrived the next morning.[2]:64

August 20[edit]

  • Dr. Samuel A. Levine was at his office when Delano telephoned Brigham Hospital on Saturday morning. Levine said the senior members of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission were out of town, but he would try to answer Delano's questions. After reviewing the messages Delano had received from Campobello, Levine said Keen's diagnosis could be dismissed. In an unpublished manuscript, Levine later wrote that "it seemed to me that Mr. Roosevelt was suffering from acute poliomyelitis". He urgently recommended that a lumbar puncture be done that same day. A diagnosis of poliomyelitis could be virtually confirmed if the ordinarily clear cerebrospinal fluid were clouded with white blood cells. Also, based on a few cases he had observed, Levine believed there could be acute benefit from the procedure.[2]:64–65, 327
  • Levine urged that a qualified doctor in Bangor or another larger city go to Campobello and immediately perform the lumbar puncture.[2]:66
  • Eleanor was called to the village to take a telephone call from Delano, who told her about his meeting with Levine. It was then that Eleanor first learned that poliomyelitis was suspected.[2]:66 Delano wrote Eleanor a follow-up letter the same day,[4]:239 advising her to stop massaging Roosevelt's legs, and to disregard Keen's advice: "I think it would be very unwise to trust his diagnosis where the Inf. Paralysis can be determined by test of the spinal fluid."[2]:66
  • Eleanor communicated with Keen, who "very strenuously" resisted the idea of poliomyelitis. He ordered no lumbar puncture, but he contacted Dr. Robert Lovett, one of the directors of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission, and asked him to visit Campobello.[2]:66

August 22[edit]

  • Lovett called Levine, a 30-year-old doctor who was one of his former students, and invited him to dinner at the Harvard Club. He tested him on how to distinguish whether paralysis was caused by poliomyelitis or by a clot or lesion of the spinal cord.[2]:67–68

August 23[edit]

  • Lovett left for Campobello.[2]:68

August 24[edit]

  • Lovett met Keen in Eastport, Maine, and interviewed him about the case. A boat took them to Campobello Island.[2]:68
  • Lovett saw Roosevelt and performed a "more or less superficial" examination since FDR was highly sensitive to touch. Nerves that regulated his breathing were unaffected. The arms were weak; the muscles of the abdomen were "pretty normal"; the bladder was paralyzed; the left thumb indicated atrophy but the limbs were not deformed. Roosevelt could not stand or walk, and Lovett documented "scattered weakness, most marked in the hips". Some muscles appeared to be recovering, with "a pretty fair degree of power after two weeks".[2]:68
  • A lumbar puncture, a standard diagnostic procedure for infantile paralysis, was performed.[2]:68–69

August 25[edit]

  • Roosevelt's temperature was 100 °F. Both legs were paralyzed. His back muscles were weak. There was also weakness of the face and left hand. Pain in the legs and inability to urinate continued.[4]:234 The lumbar puncture, which sometimes had therapeutic effects as well as diagnostic value, had no impact.[2]:69
  • After a brief conference with Keen, Lovett saw Roosevelt.[2]:69 With Eleanor, Howe, Bennet and Keen present, Lovett informed him that the "physical findings" presented a "perfectly clear" diagnosis of poliomyelitis.[2]:70
  • Lovett ordered an end to massage, which had no benefit and caused pain, and recommended a trained nurse to care for FDR. He privately told Howe that any improvement in Roosevelt's condition "would be very slight unless he had the most extraordinary will and patience".[2]:75–76
  • Lovett assured Eleanor that if her children and Howe's son had been infected with the virus they had fought it off.[2]:75
  • Lovett recommended that Roosevelt rest at Campobello until mid-September, and enter a New York hospital for convalescence under the care of Dr. George Draper, an expert on poliomyelitis who was coincidentally FDR's own personal physician. Lovett would consult from Boston.[2]:76

September 1[edit]

  • Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had been met at the pier by her brother and informed about her son, arrived at Campobello.[2]:80
  • Funds for the expenses of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission were exhausted. A public appeal for donations was made two weeks later.[14]

September 14[edit]

  • FDR was strapped into a makeshift stretcher and carried downstairs by six men, beginning a long and painful journey to New York. A launch took him over choppy waters to the railroad station at Eastport. A private railway car took him the 600 miles to Grand Central Station and a waiting ambulance.[2]:85[11]:236–237[15][16]

September 15[edit]

  • Roosevelt was admitted to Presbyterian Hospital, at Madison Avenue and 70th Street in New York City.[16]
  • There was pain in the legs, paralysis of the legs, muscle wasting in the lower lumbar area and the buttocks, weakness of the right triceps, and gross twitching of muscles of both forearms.[4]:234

October 28[edit]

  • Roosevelt was transferred from Presbyterian Hospital to his house on East 65th Street.[2]:110 His chart still read "not improving". He was carried to a back bedroom on the third floor.[11]:238


  • Roosevelt's fever returned and his vision blurred, causing him to fear going blind. He exercised daily, probably to excess; his hamstrings tightened, and his legs were encased in plaster to straighten them by degrees.[11]:238
  • There was gradual recovery from facial paralysis, weakness in upper extremities and trunk, inability to urinate, inability to defecate, dysesthesia in legs, and weakness in lower back and abdomen. But he mostly remained paralyzed from the waist down, and the buttocks were weak.[4]:234
  • In the late spring of 1922, due to tensions in the household, Roosevelt left his family in New York and went to live with his mother at Springwood.[11]:239


Franklin Roosevelt’s home state of New York was struck with a poliomyelitis (polio) outbreak in 1916, which affected thousands of children and would somehow infect FDR, changing his life forever.[17] In 1921 Franklin traveled with the Boy Scouts of America to Bear Mountain where he would get infected with Polio.[17]

Symptoms of polio began to appear while Roosevelt was on a yacht, the Sabalo, with Van Lear Black.[18] While on the yacht they travelled to Campobello and it’s there the first signs of Polio began to appear. One of the first signs was when he went overboard in the Bay of Fundy and stated “I’d never felt anything so cold as that water. I hardly went under, hardly wet my head because I still had hold of the tender, but the water was so cold it seemed paralyzing.”[18] Following going to Campobello he met with his family and fell ill. Franklin suffered from a headache, nausea, body pain and a fever.[17]

Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 when he was 39 years old.[17] After falling ill he consulted four doctors. The first, William Keen of Philadelphia claimed Roosevelt had a blood clot.[17] The second, Samuel Levine, diagnosed the polio after suggesting he get tested.[17] A third doctor, Robert Lovett, believed that Roosevelt could make a full recovery, but the last one, George Draper, FDR's personal physician, disagreed, and ultimately proved to be correct: FDR lived with the effects of polio for the rest of his life.[17]

Warm Springs[edit]

October 3, 1924 was the first time Roosevelt traveled to Warm Springs, Georgia and it soon became his home away from home.[19] For many years to come Warm Springs would be where Franklin would retreat in comfort and do rehab for his legs.[19] At Warm Springs they practiced hydrotherapy.[19] On April 29, 1926 he bought the center with the intention of making it into a rehabiliation center for polio patients.[19] One of FDR's major goals was to get the American Orthopedic Association to endorse the resort, but he was rejected because there was no real progress in physical health.[20] Roosevelt had high hopes for the center but abandoned them to focus on his main goal in life: becoming the President.[19] [fact checking needed]

Governor and President[edit]

In 1929 Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York and moved into the Governor's Mansion in Albany. Before he could move in, the mansion underwent renovations due to Roosevelt's health.[21] The mansion was made wheelchair friendly with ramps and an elevator.[21] When running for President, it was clear that Franklin wasn’t a normal candidate. At the time nominees didn’t go to their respective parties to get their official nomination but FDR did. Roosevelt won the election in 1932 in a landslide victory and become the first, and so far only, disabled person to be President of the United States.

In 1933 Franklin was sworn in as the 32nd President. Before he moved into the White House, ramps were set everywhere in order to make it wheelchair friendly.[22] To avoid the public, FDR addressed the country through radio, and when shown on newsreels he was standing on his own.[22] Any pictures of the President were taken at certain angles and at a distance.[22]

Towards the end of his presidency, Roosevelt was getting weaker and travel became much harder to bear.[23] When meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference, in Livadiya, a photo was taken of the three of them. Stalin and Churchill were meant to be standing while FDR was sitting.[23] Out of respect for the President, both Stalin and Churchill sat down for the picture.[23] During this time the President was visibly ill and people questioned whether he was healthy enough for his position.[23] Franklin's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, fought for her husband's health by proving he was fit to be president during his life and even after.[24]

Personal impact[edit]

FDR at Warm Springs (1929)

Roosevelt was totally and permanently paralyzed from the waist down, and unable to stand or walk without support.[25] For the next few months, he was confined to indoor pursuits, including resuming his lifelong hobby of stamp collecting.[26] In December 1921, after he had recuperated for several months, a physiotherapist began working with him to determine the extent of the damage. In time he was able to perform small exercises on his own, moving one muscle and then another.[27] He was fitted with heavy steel braces that locked at the knee and provided enough stability that he could stand with crutches. In 1922, at Springwood, he worked diligently to make his way across the room. He set himself the goal of getting down the long driveway, managing to do it once but never trying again.[11]:241

In October 1922 Roosevelt visited his law office at the Equitable Building, where a welcome-back luncheon had been arranged, but the chauffeur assisting him failed to brace the tip of his left crutch and Roosevelt fell onto the highly polished lobby floor. Laughing, he asked two young men in the crowd of onlookers to help get him back on his feet. After the luncheon he told friends it was a "grand and glorious occasion", but he did not go back to his office for two months.[11]:245

FDR believed that warmth and exercise would help rebuild his legs. He bought a run-down 71-foot houseboat, and in February 1923 he sailed to Florida with friends and a skeleton crew. Eleanor found it dull and left, but Roosevelt sailed for weeks, fishing and spending time with a succession of friends who came to visit. He designed a pulley system that lowered him into the water to swim. In May 1923 Lovett documented no overall improvement over the preceding year, but FDR would not accept his doctors' determination that further progress was unlikely. He tried a range of therapies, and made two more voyages on his houseboat, but his efforts had no effect.[11]:247–249

"Between 1925 and 1928, Franklin would spend more than half his time—116 of 208 weeks—away from home, struggling to find a way to regain his feet," wrote biographer Geoffrey Ward. "Eleanor was with him just 4 of those 116 weeks, and his mother was with him for only 2. His children hardly saw him."[11]:248

In October 1924 Roosevelt visited the mineral springs of rural Georgia for the first time, and became convinced of the benefits of hydrotherapy. In 1926 he bought a resort at Warm Springs, Georgia, where he founded a center for the treatment and rehabilitation of people with polio.[11]:257 It is now the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, a comprehensive rehabilitation facility operated by the state of Georgia.[28]

Before his paralysis Roosevelt had weighed 170 pounds, thin for a man 6'2" tall,[29]:220 and had suffered many illnesses.[29]:219 Roosevelt lost the use of his legs and two inches of height, but the subsequent development of the rest of his body gave him a robust physique and he enjoyed many years of excellent health. Jack Dempsey praised his upper-body musculature, and FDR once landed a 237-pound shark after fighting it on his line for two hours.[29]:241, 266–267

Social impact[edit]

FDR was the United States' first disabled president and has been the center of controversy due to his health. Many have questioned whether he was fit to be president due to his condition and how he handled his health. In Hugh Gallagher's book, FDR's The Greatest Deception, he posits that FDR was desperate to appear normal.[30] When discussing his limited use of a wheelchair in the public, Gallagher states, "This was not by accident. It was a strategy served to minimize the extent of his handicap, to make it unnoticed when possible and palatable when it was noticed."[30] Historian James Tobin also argues that FDR used his disability to his advantage. In his book, "FDR The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency", Tobin states, " But he could, instead, show himself to be something he had never been seen as before: a fighter and, and better yet, an underdog; not a man to pity, not a man to envy, but a man to cheer."[31] Despite any controversy, he has become an inspirational figure for disabled people around the world.

In the early 20th century it was very common to find hidden crippled or disabled people.[32] People with disabilities were often looked down on and were often cursed to lived a life alone. Many would be supported by their family because companies would hardly hire disabled people.[32] In a survey that was taken by 600 major employers at the time were asked if they would hire people with disabilities, and only 25% said they would.[33] The other 75% responded with, “ We naturally do not employ the afflicted when we have sound material at hand.”[33] Franklin suffered from infantile paralysis, which according to James Tobin, was “thought of an immigrant child living in rags in a filthy tenement."[33] However, Franklin changed that belief by spreading awareness around the country. By spreading awareness and raising money for disabled people, he helped bring them out of shadows, and helped break down the negative of them.

Years after FDRs' death the government added the ramps back and made all federal buildings handicap friendly.[34] The act was done to honor his legacy and what he did for the country during his presidency.[34] FDR also had his house in New York turned over to the National Park Service and could be visited.[34]

Public awareness[edit]

FDR used crutches when nominating Al Smith at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, the speech that marked his return to public life (June 26, 1924)
"No movies of me getting out of the machine, boys": FDR exiting a car during a campaign trip to Hollywood, California (September 24, 1932)
Photograph by Margaret Suckley showing FDR walking with assistance toward the dedication ceremony for the home of Woodrow Wilson (May 4, 1941)

Roosevelt was able to convince many people that he was, in fact, getting better, which he believed was essential if he was to run for public office again. In private he used a wheelchair, but only to go from one place to another. He was careful never to be seen in it in public, although he sometimes appeared on crutches. He usually appeared in public standing upright, while being supported on one side by an aide or one of his sons. For major speaking occasions, an especially solid lectern was placed on the stage so that he could support himself on it; as a result, in films of his speeches Roosevelt can be observed using his head to make gestures, because his hands were usually gripping the lectern. He would occasionally raise one hand to gesture, but his other hand held the lectern.

With his physiotherapist at Warm Springs, Roosevelt laboriously taught himself to walk short distances while wearing iron braces on his hips and legs, by swiveling his torso. For this "two-point walk", seen in a few rare films and photographs, he would grip the arm of a strong person with his left hand, and brace himself with a cane in his right. He would heave one stiff leg forward, from the hip, and then the other. He exhibited the walk for the first time when he addressed the 1928 Democratic National Convention—with such success that he was pressed to run for governor of New York.[11]:264 FDR's walk was slow and seemingly natural,[27] but the endeavor was always risky since he could easily fall.[11]:264

Roosevelt was very rarely photographed while sitting in his wheelchair, and his public appearances were choreographed to avoid the press covering his arrival and departure at public events, which would have shown him getting into or out of a car. When possible, his limousine was driven into a building's parking garage for his arrivals and departures. On other occasions, his limo would be driven onto a ramp to avoid steps, which Roosevelt was unable to ascend. When that was not practical, the steps would be covered with a ramp with railings, with Roosevelt using his arms to pull himself upward. Likewise, when traveling by train as he often did, Roosevelt often appeared on the rear platform of the presidential railroad car. When he boarded or disembarked, the private car was sometimes shunted to an area of the railroad yard away from the public for reasons of security and privacy. Track 61, a private rail siding underneath the Waldorf Astoria, was also used.[35] When Roosevelt's trains used a ramp and the president was on a publicly known trip, he insisted on walking on the ramp no matter how difficult. In 1940 an elevator was installed.[29]:140

When Roosevelt addressed the Congress in person on March 1, 1945, about a month before his death, he made public reference to his disability for almost the first time in 20 years.[29]:36 "I hope that you will pardon me for this unusual posture of sitting down," FDR began, "but I know you will realize that it makes it a lot easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs."[36]

Journalist John Gunther reported that in the 1930s he often met people in Europe, including world leaders, who were unaware of FDR's paralysis.[29]:239 However, Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs that he "wheeled him in his chair from the drawing-room to the lift as a mark of respect, thinking also of Sir Walter Raleigh spreading his cloak before Queen Elizabeth."[37]

David Brinkley, who was a young White House reporter in World War II, stated that the Secret Service actively interfered with photographers who tried to take pictures of Roosevelt in a wheelchair or being moved about by others. The Secret Service commonly destroyed photographs they caught being taken in this manner; however, there were occasional exceptions.[25][38][39]


FDR accepts a $1 million check, the proceeds of the first national President's Birthday Ball to benefit the work of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation (1934)
FDR with Basil O'Connor (1944)

March of Dimes[edit]

The National Foundation, which would be become known as the March of Dimes in 1937, was a foundation founded by FDR to help raise money for Warm Springs and polio victims.[40] The foundation began when FDR started throwing parties where people donated money that went to helping Warm Springs.[40] After going public with the foundation, more people became involved with the cause by attending the parties and donating money.[40] The March of Dimes helped spread public awareness about polio and its effect on those with the disease. His foundation is still around today and has branched out to help other diseases such cancer, premature babies, and viral diseases.

On January 3, 1938, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, now known as the March of Dimes.[41] Reconstituted from the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation he founded in 1927,[42] it was an alliance between scientists and volunteers, with volunteers raising money to support research and education efforts. Basil O'Connor, an attorney and close associate of Roosevelt, helped establish the foundation and was its president for more than three decades.[41] The organization initially focused on the rehabilitation of victims of paralytic polio, and supported the work of Jonas Salk and others that led to the development of polio vaccines. Today, the March of Dimes focuses on preventing premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality.[41]

The organization's annual fundraising campaign coincided with FDR's birthday on January 30. Because he founded the March of Dimes, a dime was chosen to honor Roosevelt after his death. The Roosevelt dime was issued in 1946, on what would have been the president's 64th birthday.[43][44][45]

Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation[edit]

Roosevelt's center at Warm Springs operates today as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, a comprehensive rehabilitation facility operated by the state of Georgia.[28] A center for post-polio treatment, it provides vocational rehabilitation, long-term acute care, and inpatient rehabilitation for amputees and people recovering from spinal cord injuries, brain damage and stroke.[46][47]


In 1991 the construction of President Roosevelt Memorial began in Washington D.C and was not completed until 1997. The lead up the opening of the memorial was met with controversy. The controversy behind the memorial stemmed from a statue of the former President in a wheel chair.[48] Many believed that FDR should not have been displayed as a disabled person because it would ruin the image the country had of him.[48] Leading up to the unveiling of the memorial President Clinton meet with the National Organization on Disability where he reassured them he would keep the statue as planned.[49] In his speech at the opening of the memorial, May 2, 1997, he stated,

“[FDR] said over and over again in different ways that we had only to fear fear itself. We did not have to be afraid of pain or adversity or failure, for all those could overcome. He knew that, of course, for that is exactly what he did. And with his faith and the power of his example we did conquer them all- depression, war, and doubt.[50]

“…by showing Franklin Roosevelt as he was we show the world that we have faith that in America you are measured for what you are and what you have achieved, not what you have lost”[50]

Retrospective diagnosis[edit]

A 2003 peer-reviewed study of Roosevelt's paralytic illness, using pattern matching, reconstructing the pathogenesis, and Bayesian analysis, found that six of eight posterior probabilities favored a diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome over poliomyelitis.[3] For the purposes of the analysis, a best estimate of the annual incidence of Guillain–Barré syndrome was 1.3 per 100,000. For paralytic poliomyelitis in Roosevelt's age group, the best estimate of the annual incidence was 1.0 per 100,000.[4]:235[51]:122-123

Based on the incidence rates for Guillain–Barré syndrome and paralytic polio, and the symptom probabilities for eight key symptoms in Roosevelt's paralytic illness, six of the eight key symptoms favored Guillain–Barré syndrome: ascending, symmetric paralysis; facial paralysis; prolonged bladder/bowel dysfunction; numbness/hyperesthesia; lack of meningismus; and descending pattern of recovery from paralysis. Two of the eight key symptoms—fever and permanent paralysis—favored polio.[4]:236–237

Two symptoms were in favor of polio. FDR had fever up to 102 °F, which is rare in Guillain–Barré syndrome, although the pattern of the fever that FDR experienced was atypical of paralytic polio.[51] Additionally, he had permanent paralysis which occurs in about 50% of polio survivors, whereas it occurs in only 15% of cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome.

Six symptoms were in favor of GBS. FDR’s paralysis was symmetric and ascending, and progressed more than four days, whereas the paralysis in poliomyelitis is typically asymmetric, variable in its ascent or descent, and usually progresses for only two to four days. A review of the medical research literature revealed only one report of paralytic polio with a symmetric, ascending paralysis.[4][51] Facial paralysis, as FDR had, in the absence of other cranial nerve abnormalities, is not consistent with a polio diagnosis, but is common in GBS.[4][51] FDR had prolonged decreased motility of the smooth muscles of the bladder and of the lower intestinal tract. Such protracted autonomic nervous system abnormalities are rare in paralytic polio.[4][51] FDR experienced a brief loss of pain and touch (partial anesthesia) in his lower extremities. Immediately after, he endured severe, protracted pain to the slightest touch (hyperesthesia) in his lower extremities. Sensory abnormalities rarely if ever occur in paralytic polio, but are common in GBS.[4][51] Furthermore, one characteristic feature of paralytic polio, meningismus (neck stiffness), was absent in FDR’s case.[51] Finally, a consistent descending pattern of recovery from paralysis is absent in paralytic polio, but common in GBS.[4][51]

Using all eight symptoms in a Bayesian analysis, based on disease incidence rates and symptom probabilities from the medical literature, the overall probability that FDR had GBS is over 99%.[51]

FDR likely would have been especially vulnerable to polio since he was raised on an isolated family estate[27] and had little contact with other children until he entered Groton at age 14.

The 2003 study stated that no analysis of the cerebrospinal fluid, the gold standard for poliomyelitis diagnosis if done early in the illness, had been done in Roosevelt's case.[4]:236[39][52]

In 2014, historian James Tobin argued that a lumbar puncture was done, based on an "unpublished note" by Dr. Samuel A. Levine of the Harvard Infantile Paralysis Commission. Tobin was not able to print or release the note. Tobin wrote that "Levine's private note indicates that Dr. Lovett did examine the cerebrospinal fluid and knew very well that a high level of white blood cells was consistent with poliomyelitis."[53] Tobin concluded:

If Lovett had discovered a low white blood cell count, he would have doubted that poliomyelitis was the cause of FDR's illness. Yet Lovett wrote George Draper that "I thought [the diagnosis] was perfectly clear as far as the physical findings were concerned." Absolute certainty about the diagnosis is impossible without the laboratory tests later developed to distinguish between polio and GBS. But the existing evidence, taken together, indicates that poliomyelitis was by far the most likely cause of Roosevelt's illness and the resulting paralysis.[53]

In 2017, the full "unpublished note" was archived at the Countway Library, and published in a book specifically about FDR's 1921 illness.[51] The author (Goldman) found Levine's belief that a spinal tap was performed on FDR highly questionable, because: 1) The note was not written until 1933 at the earliest, and most likely after FDR died. 2) There are significant factual errors in Levine’s note. 3) Levine never saw FDR. 4) Levine did not mention who did the procedure, who told him the procedure was done, or what the results were. 5) Lovett had made it clear he would not do the procedure. 6) None of the three physicians who cared for FDR at Campobello were equipped to do the procedure. 7) None of FDR's physicians at Campobello, FDR himself, or FDR's associates ever indicated that the procedure was done. Goldman says (page 193) "Given the invasive nature of a spinal tap, and the difficulty that would have occurred doing the procedure on a patient in FDR’s condition, it seems highly unlikely that a direct observer would have failed to mention anything about it."[51] Goldman went on to point out (page 198) that "Even if a spinal tap had been performed, it would have been done at the earliest about 16 days after the onset of the neurological illness, around when Lovett first saw FDR. . . . One should keep in mind that the classical distinction between paralytic polio and GBS, the concentrations of leukocytes and total protein in CSF, blurs after the first several days of the onset of paralysis in both diseases." [51]

"In any event, there was no cure for either disease in 1921," wrote biographer Jonathan Alter,[54] and the study concluded that Roosevelt's medical treatment would have been the same.[4]:238

See also[edit]


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