YESTERDAY was not only the 50th anniversary of Franklin D...

April 13, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

YESTERDAY was not only the 50th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death at the Little White House in Warm Spring, Ga. It was also the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant events in medical history.

Before I remind you what that was, let me remind you why FDR was in Warm Springs in the first place.

The president was stricken with poliomyelitis in 1921. Polio was an infectious disease that struck whole communities from time to time. There was no known cure for it or protection against it. When an epidemic occurred, panic often ensued. The disease could kill or cripple. In the first half of the 20th century, polio was probably the most dreaded disease in the United States.

FDR's polio attack left him with useless legs. He could not stand or walk without heavy metal and leather braces on both legs and with the aid of crutches, a cane or a companion's supportive arm.

After trying several "cures" and efforts at rehabilitation, in 1925 00 Roosevelt bought a rundown spa at Warm Springs where a few polios had found comfort and hope. The water was not only warm but also more buoyant than most mineral spring water, thus conducive to exercise therapy in the spa's pool.

FDR turned the place into the center of rehabilitative work and research for polio. It also became his favored site for relaxation. He seemed honestly to believe he was going to be cured. He may have felt his political future depended on it.

He ran for governor of New York in 1928. For the first time he had to confront the issue of his health. He openly discussed his polio, but insisted that his doctors had put him "on my feet." Reports to the contrary he dismissed as "sob stuff among the Republican editorial writers of New York." He won.

When he decided to run for president three years later, he invited a friendly journalist and three physicians to examine him and watch him at work. This resulted in a national magazine article that concluded "he is physically fit."

As president he never allowed the public to see how dependent he was on braces, crutches, strong bodyguards and wheelchairs. The press cooperated. FDR often talked of his infirmity in public. He always played it down. His enemies played it up, but the public did not notice.

By early in his presidency Roosevelt knew he would never regain enough leg and abdominal strength to walk or stand unaided. But he continued to work at it in Warm Springs. And he began leading a private effort to combat the disease. He raised money with nationwide dances on his birthday, formed the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, launched the March of Dimes for small contributors.

The dimes (and the dollars) poured in. They helped finance the research that a decade later produced the first of the vaccines that would eradicate polio. That breakthrough was made just in time to be announced on April 12, 1955.

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