Wednesday, September 17, 2014

FDR: Polio and the presidency

In September 1921 aspiring politician, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was taken by train from his summer house on Campobello Island to New York City with a suspected case of poliomyelitis (aka ‘polio’).

A few weeks earlier the 39-year-old had arrived on the Canadian outpost to spend the summer with his wife, Eleanor and his five children. Roosevelt was a skilled seaman and he had sailed to the island from New York. When he reached his destination he was feeling a little run down so he took a dip in the icy waters of the Bay of Fundy to perk himself up. However, the next day he was feeling no better and by the following morning FDR was paralysed from the chest down. Within days he was unable to move his hands and arms. Even his eyesight was in jeopardy.
When Roosevelt’s condition failed to improve his closest friend and advisor, Louis Howe, sought the guidance of an expert in the field of infantile paralysis. After examining Roosevelt, the Harvard specialist promptly diagnosed poliomyelitis. The patient was rushed off the island immediately for treatment in New York. Although Roosevelt had nicknamed Campobello his ‘beloved island’, FDR wasn’t to return for the next twelve years.

View from Campobello Island to Lubec in the USA,
taken during research trip for The President's Lunch
Back in New York, FDR’s condition gradually improved and he was determined to walk again. By the following year he was fitted with heavy braces on his legs and, albeit with assistance, he was able to stand again. In 1924 Roosevelt discovered the healing powers of the mineral springs in Warm Springs, Georgia. When the resort there fell into financial trouble two years later, FDR bought the complex and transformed it into a rehabilitation centre specifically for polio victims. Within ten years it was the leading centre for infantile paralysis in the country.

FDR accepted his disability with remarkably good humour. What he didn’t accept were the wheelchairs of the era which were large, cumbersome and difficult to manoeuvre. Roosevelt wanted as few people as possible to know about his disability, fearing it would damage his political dreams. So he fashioned his own transport out of a dining chair and bicycle wheels. It was fast, efficient and, as a dining chair was an item people were familiar with, relatively discreet.
FDR announcing that America was at war
Roosevelt used his disability to motivate himself to even greater heights than he perhaps would otherwise have reached. Eleanor once remarked that his paralysis was a ‘blessing in disguise’. In 1928 he ran for the governorship of New York. Triumphant, he held the position for two terms before seeking the presidency in 1932.

It is only now that people associate FDR with his disability. During his historic four terms in office he was photographed seated in his wheelchair on just three occasions. Wearing fourteen pound callipers on each leg and supported by a son on one side and a cane on the other, FDR insisted on walking to the podium to deliver an address. The president saw it as crucial that, when in public, he was standing tall. Roosevelt refused to allow his disability to define him.
FDR was never to regain the use of his legs, but he did return to Campobello. In the summer of 1933, the newly inaugurated president captained the Amberjack II along the east coast of the United States to his beloved island. When he sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay every owner of every fishing boat in the area sailed out to welcome their homecoming hero.
Here I am, during the research trip for The President's Lunch,
outside the Roosevelt's holiday house on Campobello Island

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