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How Polio Changed Us, Franklin D. Roosevelt

Quote. From the first, Roosevelt seemed to understand that rehabilitation of the polio patient was a social problem with medical aspects. It was not a medical problem with social aspects. End Quote. Hugh G. Gallagher, 1998

When Franklin Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921, at age thirty-nine, it inspired his interest in medical philanthropy. When he heard about the therapeutic value of the thermal mineral baths at Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt went there and ended up buying the site and creating a foundation in 1927. He persuaded his friend and New York City law partner Basil O’Connor to run it.

After Roosevelt became president in 1933, O’Connor co-coordinated Birthday Balls that took place on Roosevelt’s birthday each January and raised money for the care of polio patients. These were so successful that in 1938 they were merged into a nationwide organization, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes.

“Once you’ve spent two years trying to wiggle one toe, everything is in proportion.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945

Left photo. Roosevelt standing with Basil O'Connor and a woman
Right photo. Roosevelt sitting on a towel with a newspaper in front of a swimming pool
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Left: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Basil O’Connor Courtesy of March of Dimes
Right: Roosevelt sitting poolside at Warm Springs, Georgia, 1924 Courtesy of Ed Jackson, Carl Vinson Institute of Government

“For a generation, Warm Springs was a community of the handicapped. A permanent population of polios came to live at the Foundation or nearby. Many of these people worked at the Foundation as officials, staff people, and teachers…. New polios saw the old polios as persons with a paralysis pattern similar to their own, living a normal life, functioning as productive human beings. The value of such an example was enormous.”
—Hugh G. Gallagher, 1998

Left image. Sheet music cover with image of Roosevelt and text stating, The President's Birthday Ball, Irving Berlin
Right image. Sheet music for The President's Birthday Ball
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Sheet music for the President’s Birthday Ball, composed by Irving Berlin, 1942

“We can never forget that special union of the paradise island set up by master Roosevelt and his merry crew who invented joy on earth for those of us fortunate enough to get out of the claws of the doctors in the small grey hospitals around the country and into that wonder.”
—Lorenzo Wilson Milam, 1984

Room full of young black children sitting at a table and one in a wheelchair
In 1939, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis supplied funding for a center at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where black patients could go for treatment. They were not admitted to Warm Springs. Courtesy of March of Dimes
Photo of FDR
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Franklin Roosevelt standing at a microphone at the Institute for the Crippled and Disabled in New York City, 1928

Image of a romantic angel figure, an American flag and several children with text stating, The Birthday Ball for the President, January 30th, 1937
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Birthday Ball poster for 1937, designed by Howard Chandler Christy Courtesy of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York

Man at a machine making a brace
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A brace maker at Warm Springs

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