Tuesday, October 14, 2014


I remember that John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran the most powerful government on earth while suffering constant pain and severe illness.

Phyllis Carter

Polio crippled FDR's legs. It couldn't erode his spirit
On the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to take his three older children, Anna, James and Elliott, for a sail in the icy waters off Campobello Island, New Brunswick, where the Roosevelts had their summer cottage.

The 39-year-old Roosevelt was obviously in good health and used to a vigorous life. But back at the cottage, he felt a sudden chill overtake him. Too tired to take his supper with the family, or even to bother to change out of his swimming suit, FDR sat reading for a time. He then wearily climbed the stairs to go to bed. By morning, FDR had a fever of 102 degrees, and all the strength seemed to have gone out of his aching legs. As night fell, the pain spread to his neck and back. Worse still, he found he couldn't move his legs at all.

FDR did not know it yet, but he had contracted poliomyelitis, a crippling viral disease that would leave him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life.
Eleanor and Franklin now faced the most serious challenge of their lives.
In September, the family returned to New York, where FDR hoped to make a full recovery. After months of treatment, it was clear to FDR's attending physician that the paralysis in his legs was permanent. FDR would never walk again unassisted.
FDR refused to accept the notion that he was, in effect, a paraplegic. He was determined to walk again, and for the next seven years he threw himself into a daily routine of exercise and therapy.
Day in and day out, both at his townhouse on 65th Street in New York, and during his visits to Hyde Park, he practiced ''walking'' with crutches and the heavy steel leg braces he had been fitted with. At one point he decided he must walk from the family home in Hyde Park to the end of the driveway - a distance of a quarter mile. Sweating profusely from the strain, FDR tried to reach the end of the drive again and again. He never made it, although he once reached the halfway point.

In 1924, FDR received a letter from his friend, the wealthy banker George Foster Peabody, informing him about a young polio sufferer, Lewis Joseph, who seemed to have recovered his ability to walk by swimming in the buoyant waters of a Georgia resort called Warm Springs. Peabody, who was the co-owner of the resort, suggested FDR might also derive benefit from swimming in its warm waters and he urged FDR to give it a try.
In October, Franklin traveled to Warm Springs to take the waters and meet the young man. He was delighted at the warmth and buoyancy of the water, which supported his weight and enabled him to stand and practice walking.
FDR soon fell in love with Warm Springs and in 1926 he announced to his stunned family that he had decided to buy it and turn it into a center for the hydrotherapeutic treatment of polio victims. Shortly thereafter, FDR also established the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a nonprofit foundation devoted to this work. FDR invested nearly $200,000 in the foundation (roughly two thirds of his private fortune) and for the next two years would serve as its director and unofficial physiotherapist.

In 1928, FDR came under increasing pressure to run for governor of New York. After numerous calls and letters imploring him to run, and a lengthy telephone conversation with Eleanor, he agreed. The long sojourn at Warm Springs was over. He would remain in close contact with the foundation, and would return every year to take the waters and exercise his legs, but from this point on his attention shifted back to his public career.
FDR was well aware that his physical limitations might become an issue in the campaign and shortly after making the decision to run, questions about his health and his ability to handle the rigors of office surfaced in the press. FDR met this challenge head on, by running one of the most vigorous campaigns to date, and by presenting himself in public as a man full of vim and vitality. Indeed, in a society deeply prejudiced against the disabled, it was imperative that FDR not be seen as a ''cripple,'' as in 1920s America a physical handicap was often viewed as the outward sign of diminished mental abilities and emotional make-up.

To overcome this prejudice, FDR carefully staged his public appearances. He traveled in the back seat of an open car fitted with an iron bar that he could grab onto so as to pull himself to a standing position once the vehicle had stopped. He would then quickly snap his braces into place and proceed to address his audience, making sure that he made reference to his numerous campaign appearances and the intensity with which he was canvassing the state.

Whenever possible, FDR would address his audience from a standing position — in town halls, from the back of his railway car, in larger auditoriums. If it were necessary for FDR to walk to the podium, he would use a cane with one hand, and grip the strong arm of an aide or one of his sons with the other. As he ambled along, slowly, he would raise his head and smile, and distract his onlookers with witty banter.

In private, FDR frequently used a wheelchair (a narrow, armless, unobtrusive contraption that he designed himself) to get from one place to another. But he refused to be seen in it in public. He also worked out a remarkable "gentleman's agreement" with the press, who were asked not to take photographs of him in it, or any of the many situations in which he might appear helpless. Remarkably, the press adhered to this tacit understanding, and of the tens of thousands of photographs taken of FDR during his public and private life, there are but two known to exist showing him in his wheelchair.

For the full story of FDR's battle with polio, including the "splendid deception" he worked out to divert attention from his disability, go to www.feri.org/archives/polio/default.cfm.
Spencer Ainsley/Poughkeepsie Journal
One of FDR's wheelchair in his bedroom closet
with one of his classic fedoras.

1 comment:

Phyllis Carter said...

And President Teddy Roosevelt gave an hour-long speech immediately after an assassin's bullet lodged close to his heart.