Henderson told a symposium at the...

LAST MONTH, D. A.

May 14, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

LAST MONTH, D. A. Henderson told a symposium at the Hopkins'School of Hygiene that there hasn't been a case of naturally occurring polio in the Western hemisphere in almost a year.

Once the most dreaded of childhood diseases, polio has been eliminated from the United States and other developed countries for over 30 years. A very few children are stricken each year as a result of taking polio vaccine, but before the vaccine was developed there were as many as 20,000 cases a year of the disease in the United States alone. Not every victim was a child. Franklin D. Roosevelt was 39 years old when his legs were paralyzed in 1921 by polio.

FDR went on to be elected governor of New York twice and president of the United States four times. Though he could walk only for a short period and distance and then only with the aid of crutches, heavy metal leg braces and a strong companion at his side, and although he often talked about his physical condition in public, FDR nevertheless managed to hide from the public the fact that he was disabled.

He did so by referring to his condition in a way that suggested that he was "cured," or that he suffered a "mild" form of the disease. Neither was true. FDR got away with what author Hugh Gregory Gallagher called this "splendid deception" because the press conspired with his efforts to deceive. The press not only did not report on his true day-to-day difficulties, it also did not report on numerous whispering campaigns by FDR's opponents the effect that he was in even worse shape than he was. Few Americans even knew FDR was usually wheelchair-bound.

FDR led the effort to find a cure for polio. An organization was established to hold "FDR birthday balls" to raise research money. This became the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The foundation tapped an ex-Hopkins virologist, Dr. Thomas Rivers, to direct its medical research. FDR friend Eddie Cantor, the comedian, came up with a new fund-raising idea and slogan -- "The March of Dimes." The dimes rolled in from the public, and the search for a prevention rather than a cure was off and running.

In 1955, research sponsored by the foundation produced at last a vaccine. That was announced on April 12, which was the 10th anniversary of FDR's death. Critics said the vaccine had been developed earlier and the news withheld for maximum pro-FDR publicity effect.

To which Tom Rivers replied, "What if the report had been delayed three or four days? President Roosevelt had been the founder of the National Foundation. Hell, [he] started everything. Without [him] there would have been no foundation, and, I dare say, no vaccine."

As president during the Great Depression and World War II, FDR had more impact on more lives than any president in history. But he had even more worldwide, long-lasting impact as founder, inspiration and fund raiser for the medical adventure that will soon have eradicated polio from the face of the earth.

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