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  • A Crippling Fear: Experiencing Polio in the Era of FDR
  • Daniel J. Wilson* (bio)

Poliomyelitis in the 1930s and 1940s was a feared crippler of children and young adults. In spite of advances in polio aftercare, the development of specialized treatment centers such as Warm Springs, and increasing scientific knowledge about the virus and the disease, the experience of polio remained terrifying. The epidemics between 1930 and 1945 never reached the magnitude of the 1916 epidemic that devastated the northeastern United States, but they occurred with sufficient severity and regularity to keep the crippling of polio in the minds of anxious parents and physicians. The symbol of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had overcome the ravages of infantile paralysis to become president, dominated the public perception of the polio victim. There is no doubt that Roosevelt’s commitment to the establishment of the Warm Springs Foundation dedicated to polio rehabilitation, and his later support for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, fostered the development of more-effective therapies and ultimately of research into the causes and prevention of poliomyelitis. Roosevelt, however, was an ironic model for the polio survivor: the extent of his disability was largely hidden from the public even as he served as an inspiration for many victims of the virus. [End Page 464] The polio experience in this decade and a half thus cannot be encompassed in the story of Roosevelt, Warm Springs, and the March of Dimes. Most polio victims lacked FDR’s wealth, support, and access to the finest medical care that made possible his image as one who had recovered from polio. In the oral histories and published biographies and autobiographies of polio survivors, and in the letters that polio victims and their families wrote to President Roosevelt, lies a more complex story of the polio experience in this period.

Most studies of the polio epidemics and the development of the polio vaccines have slighted the history of polio during the years of Depression and World War II. Several studies, most notably Naomi Rogers’s Dirt and Disease: Polio before FDR, have focused on the single most serious U.S. epidemic in New York and the northeast in 1916. 1 Other recent books—including those by Jane Smith, Tony Gould, and Kathryn Black—have focused on the post-World War II experience and on the development of the vaccines. 2 Some studies, especially John R. Paul’s History of Poliomyelitis and Margaret Grimshaw’s recent essay, discuss this period in some detail, but their primary subject is the scientific research into understanding and preventing the disease. 3 When scholars such as Rogers, Smith, Gould, and Black discuss the Depression and war years, they focus on the well-documented case of Roosevelt, stories of the founding of Warm Springs and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and the controversy surrounding the arrival of Sister Elizabeth Kenny in 1940.

Polio narratives from the period suggest that these set pieces fail to do justice to the full story of the experience of the many victims of the virus. The individual polio experience of this decade and a half was shaped less by what was happening nationally and more by personal circumstance— [End Page 465] where and how hard polio struck, and the local availability of acute and rehabilitative care. The considerable advances in the scientific understanding of poliomyelitis during the thirties had almost no impact on polio care and aftercare. The possibilities for rehabilitation were expanding, especially with the establishment of Warm Springs and the National Foundation, but most polio patients could not afford to travel to Warm Springs for care, and the National Foundation did not begin to pay for care until the late thirties and early forties. Most polio patients were treated locally by whatever orthodox or unorthodox methods were available. The most significant change in polio rehabilitation came with the introduction of Sister Kenny’s methods in the early forties. The prevalence of polio, combined with the inadequacy or unavailability of rehabilitation, produced a growing population that feared the crippling of polio and the almost inevitable alienation, loneliness, pain, stigmatization, and loss of income or earning potential that followed. In their fears and anxieties, polio...