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The March of Dimes changed the face of fundraising. Prior to its
inception, fundraising was something done by society women in clubs. It involved
large checks and fancy dress balls and emphasized the power of the wealthy to provide for
the little guy.
The March of Dimes was something all Americans could do.
It was democracy in action. It appealed to the middle class, to the homemaker
and the small businessman and the young parent. Anyone could find one dime to
contribute. Every person was called upon to work together for the common good.1
The organization of the National Foundation was different, too. Most
charitable groups were run by the socially and financially powerful, who dictated to a
small subordinate staff how their charity would operate. The National Foundation had
an almost military chain of command, with Basil O'Connor at the top. There were five
paid regional directors who reported directly to him. They supervised three thousand
local chapters with ninety thousand year-round volunteers. Two million other
volunteers worked only during the January fund drives. Originally, all of the monies
collected went to the national headquarters, to be doled out where the need was greatest.
Only intense pressure from the local chapters allowed half of the money to be used
on the local level; subject to the stipulation that it could be requested by headquarters
for emergencies in other parts of the country.2
It was the first time that celebrities had been involved in
fund-raising. The first campaign, in 1938, foreshadowed the role that Hollywood
stars would have in supporting the war effort during World War II. Just as Betty
Grable danced with soldiers in the Hollywood USO and Veronica Lake pinned back her
"peek-a-boo bangs" to encourage Rosie Riveters to wear safe hairstyles, the
March of Dimes had its public support. From the radio, Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy
Cagney played "tough guy" dimes, bragging about their ability to fight
polio. Even Jack Benny was not so stingy that the threat of polio could not not pry
a dime from his pinchpenny pockets.3 When the collection
buckets moved into the movie theaters, the appeal moved to the screen. Mickey Mouse
leading a marching band while singing "Hi ho, hi ho, we'll lick that
polio." Helen Hayes' daughter had died of polio; when she joined other
Hollywood mothers like Lucille Ball and Zsa Zsa Gabor to appeal to the mothers of the
audience, to give as much as they could to spare others that terrible pain, how could you
In 1946, the March of Dimes introduced another innovation in fundraising:
the poster child. Until that time, when ill children were used as evidence of need,
they looked pathetic. They were chosen for their ability to arouse sympathy.
The March of Dimes poster children were different. They were gorgeous.
They were fresh-faced youngsters, boys and girls, Black and White, who looked happy and
healthy and full of the promise of youth. But to some extent, they carried the brand
of polio, whether it was slings or crutches or braces. Polio had been the Crippler,
the Deformer. Kenny therapy was restoring these children, and the March of Dimes was
all that was needed to complete them.5
Korean War-era polio poster.
Volunteers took to the streets for a real March of Dimes. Across the
nation, volunteers, mostly women, gathered for the Mother's March Against Polio. On
1 February 1951, when talk of vaccines was growing more and more optimistic, thousands and
thousands of volunteers went into the streets to collect for the National Foundation.
At 7:00 p.m., church bells would ring and fire stations would blow their horns.
Anyone who wanted to contribute would turn on their porch light and meet the
volunteers at the door with their donation. In one month, the volunteers would raise
the operating funds for the National Foundation for the whole year.6
Some people, lots of people, were cynical about the tactics of the March
of Dimes. Some of these cynics were those whose lives polio had changed, parents
whose children were in iron lungs, disabled children whose friends no longer came to
play. Their lives did not much match the buoyant, up-beat image of the poster child.7
There was also, strangely enough, opposition from the very medical researchers who
were benefiting from the newly available funds. Some charged that the National
Foundation was manipulative and money-grubbing, that they exploited the polio patients for
their sympathy value, that they exaggerated the dangers of polio.
Perhaps it was true. And on some level, the volunteers probably knew
it. But, after all, who cared if it wasn't dignified. As Jane Smith wrote:
"A rational and dignified appeal wouldn't cover the cost
of an iron lung or fund the shipment of a hundred laboratory monkeys from Manila.
Dignity couldn't buy a gross of crutches or pay for the training of a single physical
therapist. Energy and ingenuity were what counted, and old-fashioned tear-jerking
By 1954, when the Salk field trials were underway, the NFIP was one of the
most successful voluntary health organizations in the world. Only the American Red
Cross collected more money each year. In the early 1950s, the National Foundation
spent ten times as much money on polio research as the National Institutes of Health.9
I remember when my son got the shot, I thought, 'This is the
day that I walked for.'
General Chairman, Mothers March on Polio
San Diego County, 1951
as quoted in A Paralyzing Fear
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1. Seavey, Nina Gilden, Jane S. Smith, & Paul
Wagner. A Paralyzing Fear: The Triumph over Polio in America. New
York, New York: TV Books. 1998. pp. 70.
2. Smith, Jane S. Patenting the Sun: Polio and the
Salk Vaccine. New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
1990. p. 65.
3. idem. p. 75.
4. Seavey, Nina, et. al. op. cit. pp. 71-72.
5. idem. p. 74.
6. idem. pp. 81-83.
8. Smith, Jane S. op. cit. pp. 82-83.
9. idem. p. 64.