Franklin Roosevelt: Political Implications of his Polio

A severe attack of poliomyelitis in 1921 resulted in total paralysis of both legs to the hips. FDR was 39 years old in 1921 1 SEE BELOW. Eleanor Roosevelt thought FDR's polio was "a turning point" that "proved a blessing in disguise; for it gave him strength and courage he had not had before" 2a.

Comment: FDR's polio led him to lavishly fund polio research which, in turn, led to the vaccine 3 and, some say, to modern molecular biology. [McKusick in Lincoln article]

As President, Roosevelt's train journeys were limited to 35 miles per hour to minimize his discomfort from the vibration of the car 4. (Perhaps his muscles were weak to the point they couldn't buffer the impact, or they were so wasted that he had no cushion.)

Today it is commonly said that FDR's polio was unknown at the time of his election. Of course, those around him knew. Moreover, they talked about its possible effect on his Presidency.

Henry L. Stoddard, editor of a New York newspaper, had the following conversation with Calvin Coolidge during FDR's first run for the White House in 1932 5a:

"If [FDR is elected]," said Mr. Coolidge, "we will be taking in America the biggest gamble in government that any people ever took."'

"You refer to Roosevelt's disability?" I asked.

"Yes -- that is part of the gamble," he replied. "Roosevelt has shown a great fighting spirit. I admire him for it, but he must have even greater courage to undertake what is ahead of any man the next four years. He will need greater strength, too. I know the burdens of the Presidency even [sic] in good times; in this situation they will be tremendous. There is almost an even chance that neither he nor any man in stronger health can stand the strain -- and that chance is a good deal for a nation deliberately to face with all our other uncertainties."

Cited Sources
  1. Bruenn, HG. Clinical notes on the illness and death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Ann Int Med. 1970;72: 579-591. Pubmed: 4908628.
  2. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963. Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.
    a  p.198
  3. Katz, SL. From culture to vaccine -- Salk and Sabin. New England Journal of Medicine. 2004; 351: 1485-1487.
  4. Bollet, Alfred Jay. Plagues and Poxes: The Impact of Human History on Epidemic Disease. Revised edition. New York: Demos, 2004.

    Comment: As reviewed in New Engl J Med. 2005;352:1055-1056.

  5. Stoddard, Henry L. It Costs to Be President. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1938.
    a  p.141

    Comment: Stoddard was editor and owner of the New York Evening Mail from 1900 to 1925.

George Washington · John Adams · Thomas Jefferson · James Madison · James Monroe · John Q. Adams · Andrew Jackson · Martin van Buren · William Harrison · John Tyler · James Polk · Zachary Taylor · Millard Fillmore · Franklin Pierce · James Buchanan · Abraham Lincoln · Andrew Johnson · Ulysses Grant · Rutherford Hayes · James Garfield · Chester Arthur · Grover Cleveland · Benjamin Harrison · William McKinley · Theodore Roosevelt · William Taft · Woodrow Wilson · Warren Harding · Calvin Coolidge · Herbert Hoover · Franklin Roosevelt · Harry Truman · Dwight Eisenhower · John Kennedy · Lyndon Johnson · Richard Nixon · Gerald Ford · James Carter · Ronald Reagan · George Bush · William Clinton · George W. Bush · Barack Obama · Donald Trump · Joseph Biden