Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Flashback, August 1921: FDR Contracts Polio

Franklin D. Rooseveltblessed with a patrician heritage, a famous name, and good looks—thought he and his family were merely in a struggle to put out a fire near his family summer home on Campobello Island in Maine in the second week of August 1921.

Instead, the following 24 hours began a fight for his life in which he found his personal advantages counted for little or nothing. Ultimately, he was forced to more actively manage his medical treatment, rethink his career and the plight of the downtrodden in this country, and he discover the importance of thinking of the box when it came to public policy.

For much of the rest of the month after he fell mysteriously and catastrophically ill, Eleanor Roosevelt—still figuring out what place she would have in the private and public life of a husband who had been unfaithful to her three years before—now found that relationship disrupted even more than before.

To her, on this vacation resort that was medically understaffed, fell the responsibility of easing the distress of her husband until help arrived; figuring out whether physicians’ advice squared with her husbands’ condition; and deciding when and how to inform her overbearing mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, about the grave danger now facing the son she had tried to save from harm.

FDR’s struggle with polio has long fascinated me, for historical, dramatic and personal reasons. That fight became the crucible for the indomitable personality who carried the United States through the Great Depression and World War II, perhaps the greatest crises any President faced since Lincoln dealt with the Civil War.

Broadway and film audiences applauded Ralph Bellamy’s bravura performance as FDR in Sunrise at Campobello. But that heroic version of the future President’s ordeal, as engaging as it was, was written more than six decades ago, when Eleanor was still alive and the family was sensitive about detailing tensions in their household.

As one of the fans of the Bellamy movie long ago, I thrilled to the idea of its hero defying incredible odds to stake out a new life for himself and a New Deal for the American people.

Some years later, I discovered a fact about a family member that brought this chapter in FDR’s life even closer closer to home.

In a blog post written 13 years ago, I discussed how my grandaunt, Hannah Riordan Spollen, an Irish survivor of the Titanic, had worked as a domestic servant for several years at Bellefield, the estate of FDR’s friend and next-door neighbor Thomas Newbold, where she would take the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt up in the elevator. (Bellefield now serves as the National Park Service headquarters at FDR’s estate.)

An Investigation and an Infection

Amid the multiple, rapid traumas that gripped the Roosevelts and the nation in the quarter-century after FDR’s medical crisis, a kind of amnesia developed over an investigation that had clouded his political future in the summer just before his health emergency.

As Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, FDR had approved a sting operation to ferret out homosexual sailors in Newport, R.I. A Senate subcommittee report deemed the operation entrapment and blamed it squarely on Roosevelt.

To be sure, the Republican-controlled Congress had ample reason to discredit FDR, the 1920 Democratic candidate for Vice-President who, at age 39, had a bright and seemingly limitless future ahead of him. But the report was stressful and damaging to him.

In late July 1921, FDR traveled to Bear Mountain State Park for a giant Boy Scout jamboree. It was meant to provide a setting for the kind of stress-free, meet-the-constituent events that any politician worth his salt welcomes—and which would get his mind off the questions being raised by some in the media about the Newport scandal.

Epidemiologists now believe that the water in Bear Mountain was contaminated, providing a kind of petri dish for the polio virus--and, due to FDR's recent stress and prior medical history of typhoid fever, scarlet fever, and respiratory illness, his immunity system was weakened. It took nearly two weeks, but when the virus took hold of an exhausted FDR on Aug. 10, the impact was devastating.

Once he and his children had put out the forest fire that day, he swam in a lake, followed by a dip in the icy Bay of Fundy. What began as a pre-dinner chill had turned the next morning into a high fever.

The Roosevelts’ regular physician on Campobello thought Franklin just had a severe cold. A second Eleanor was able to get thought at first that the cause of the crisis a blood clot in the lower spinal cord, then decided it must be a spinal lesion. But these diagnoses were wrong, as was the treatment for both: massage therapy to improve circulation.

Finally, on Aug. 25, an orthopedic surgeon surprised Franklin with a diagnosis of infantile paralysis—i.e., polio—and ordered an end to the massage therapy, which may have been worsening his condition.

By mid-September, Eleanor and FDR’s political adviser Louis Howe—who had rushed to the family cottage to help her with round-the-clock care of Franklin—had to arrange his transfer to New York Presbyterian Hospital for further medical observation and treatment. They devised an operation that became, in somewhat lessened fashion, the template for his life going forward: a complex, linked transportation system and news management that fell somehow short of modern notions of transparency.

FDR was taken on an improvised stretcher off Campobello, with Howe intentionally misdirecting reporters to a different spot on the island than the one they expected.  From that point on, FDR would go by boat, truck, and rail to Grand Central Station—a jumpy journey that exhausted him.

Once the polio diagnosis was made and accepted by FDR and his family, the debate over his future began. Franklin’s mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, preferred that he come home to Hyde Park, recuperate, and forget about politics.

But wife Eleanor and Howe did not want to foreclose that avenue for him—and Franklin, with his invincible optimism, decided that somehow, he would re-enter politics in some capacity, while doing all he could to recover fully. He even offered advice to another physician, Dr. William Egleston of South Carolina, on treatment of polio patients based on his own experience. (That 1924 letter also is one of the most extensive descriptions he ever provided on his personal ordeal.) His enthusiastic patronage of the Warm Springs spa Warm Springs in Georgia made it the prime place for polio patients to receive therapy,

Of course, FDR was not fully successful in achieving his hopes. Though he retained his upper-body strength to an impressive degree, he was never able to walk again without even limited adjustments for his disability—including a wheelchair, heavy braces, a male companion (often eldest son James or an aide) whose arm he could hold when he rose to his feet, and just a few steps to walk. Fiercely proud, and wanting all who came in contact with him to approach him as they would anyone else, he did all he could to minimize his condition. (He even largely got the press to accede to his request not to photograph him in his wheelchair; only a handful of such pictures exist out of the thousands of him in the Presidential library at Hyde Park.)

Nevertheless, Roosevelt did indeed re-enter politics, even running ahead of the goals originally set by himself and Howe (New York Governor 1932, the Presidency 1936). He used his office to publicize The March of Dimes, the campaign that ultimately bankrolled research for a polio vaccine.

The effort to eradicate polio has succeeded so markedly that the last Americans stricken by the disease are in their late sixties or seventies, and diminishing daily.

A man in a wheelchair, then, inspired a nation to rise to its feet again during the Great Depression.

(The image accompanying this post comes from the 1960 film adaptation of Sunrise at Campobello, showing Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson as, respectively, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Bellamy repeated his Tony Award-winning role for the big screen, while Garson was nominated for an Oscar as the future First Lady.)

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