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  • Writer's pictureJames Sargent

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Polio and Vaccines

Roosevelt in wheel chair with another polio sufferer at Warm Springs
President Roosevelt in his wheelchair on the porch at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, NY with Ruthie Bie and Fala. February1941. This photograph was taken by his friend, Margaret "Daisy" Suckley. Ruthie Bie (later Bautista), then three years old, was the daughter of the property caretakers.

In the 1940s, when Mickey Mathews, a fictional hero, was solving mysteries, a great crippling threat to public health was polio. At that time, nobody had heard of the coronavirus, or covid-19.

One of Mickey’s greatest friends became Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected President in 1932 and re-elected in 1936, 1940, and 1944. Although most Americans never knew it while he was alive, Roosevelt had suffered an attack of polio while vacationing at his summer home on Campobello Island in New Brunswick in August of 1921. Some days later, he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, also called infantile paralysis in those years.

Roosevelt was crippled from the waist down. For more than two years FDR struggled with treatments. Later, he adopted an expert doctor’s advice, exercising and learning to swim in very warm water. He learned his legs could support his 6’2” frame in water up to his chest. Otherwise, he used a wheelchair at his home near the Hudson River in Hyde Park, New York. In 1924, he purchased property in Warm Springs, Georgia, which, true to its name, has thermal springs flowing year-around with water that is 88 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thereafter, Roosevelt made a total of 42 trips by train to the cottage he later had built in Warm Springs, where he could exercise in a thermally-heated swimming pool. In 1938 he backed the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later the Polio Foundation), which sponsored the March of Dimes with its goal of research into the causes and cures of polio.

Roosevelt re-invigorated his public career by winning election as the governor of New York in 1928, and he was re-elected in 1930. As Americans of that generation knew, Roosevelt was elected President over incumbent Republican Herbert Hoover in 1932. During all of his years in public life, FDR appeared in most photos as walking with the aid of another person’s arm. His disability was not pictured in public, and many American never knew FDR was crippled.

When Mickey Mathews first met President Roosevelt at the White House in the fall of 1943, he saw that FDR was crippled. In Jim Sargent’s mystery novel The Long Pursuit (Wynwidyn, 2018), Mickey, realizing Roosevelt’s sensitivity, kept the information to himself.

In Sargent’s later novel Warm Springs Mystery (Doce Blant, 2020), Mickey again was aware of the President’s disability when FDR did not stand up from the couch at his “Little White House” to shake hands with the man whose friends may well have saved his life earlier.

In 1955, Doctor Jones Salk devised a vaccine that has virtually wiped out polio. A cure for polio was one of FDR’s dreams. Also in the 1950s, a shot for influenza, or the flu, was devised. As years passed, flu shots became widely accepted by Americans as the way to avoid the flu virus.

If Roosevelt was alive today, he would be in the forefront of those favoring covid vaccinations.

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