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In September of 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced the
formation of a new charity called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
The National Foundation would be chartered in January of 1938, to coincide with his
birthday, which had been a fundraising event for the treatment of polio patients since
Almost immediately the National Foundation got a nickname. Playing
on the name of a popular newsreel of the period, The March of Time, comedian
Eddie Cantor called on America to take part in The March of Dimes, and send dimes
to the White House. Within a week, the White House had been deluged by mail.
When the dust settled, the National Foundation discovered that $1.8 million dollars had
been raised, $268,000 of which had been mailed to the White House one dime at a time.1
The National Foundation began to fund both research and
rehabilitation. It was only six months old when it wrote its first research grant,
to Yale University's Poliomyelitis Unit.2
The first task was to find out what they were up against. It had
been known since 1907 that polio was caused by a virus.3 In
1908, Karl Landsteiner showed that monkeys could be infected with polio, although they
were not naturally susceptible. This would provide researchers with an animal model.4
The exact nature of the virus was not known, however.
Research in the 1940s and 50s discovered a lot about polio. First,
an outbreak of polio among soldiers stationed in the mid-East during World War II, in a
region where children who rarely got infantile paralysis, showed the link between polio
and modern sanitation. Where poliovirus was endemic, children were exposed as
infants, while protected by their mother's immunity. Soldiers from the sanitized
U.S. had not been exposed as children and now were getting full fledged poliomyelitis.5
Another new datum was that the virus did not enter the body through the
nose to the brain, but through the mouth, to grow initially in the intestines. From
there it moved to the nervous system, where it attacked the motor nerves.6
Initially, poliovirus was cultured in monkeys, a long and complicated
process. In 1948, John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederic Robbins discovered that
poliovirus could be grown in test tubes using a broth of monkey kidneys. It
simplified the cultivation of the virus and saved a lot of monkeys.7
The next important thing was to determine how many types of poliovirus
there were. The National Foundation funded a three year project at labs across the
nation to type every known sample of polio. After all were typed, scientists knew
that there were only three serotypes.8
As the 50s began, progress on the disease came faster. But the
epidemics got worse. Basil O'Connor, the National Foundation's director, had
been passionate about the vaccine since the days of the President's Birthday Balls.
Now he was obsessed. He suffered a heart attack in June of 1952. For years he
had publicly declared his dream of beating polio in his lifetime. Now it looked like
he was running out of time.9
And polio, that vindictive, mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch, had struck back
at the man who marshaled the forces of its enemy. In the summer of 1950, his
daughter Bettyann, a young mother, had called him to tell him, "Daddy, I've got some
of your polio." She never walked again.10
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1. Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk
Vaccine. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
1990. pp. 65-75.
2. "Milestones." March of Dimes.
(1 June 1999).
3. Brody, Seymour. "Simon Flexner: A Pioneer in
the Study of Pathology." Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America: 1900 to
World War II. 18 February 1998. http://www.fau.edu/library/bro50.htm.
(1 June 1999).
4. Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul
Wagner. A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America. New
York, New York: TV Books. 1998. p. 164.
5. idem. p. 166.
6. idem. p. 167.
8. idem. p. 168.
9. Smith, Jane S. op. cit. pp. 170-171.
10. Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul
Wagner. A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America. p. 168.