Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
You are on Roosevelt
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Polio Today: Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

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In 1928, Alfred E. Smith, the Governor of New York, was running for president.  He nominated Roosevelt to take his place.  Roosevelt walked to the rostrum on the arm of his son, and made an impassioned nomination of Smith.1  Smith lost, but Roosevelt was elected Governor, and re-elected in 1930.

Roosevelt then began a campaign for the presidency.  He was nominated by the Democratic Party in 1932, and broke with tradition by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person.  Roosevelt was already deep into creating a conspiracy that would conceal his pain and the extent of his paralysis.2  The ruse was effective, and Roosevelt was able to win the election on the promise to pull the nation out of the depression.

Roosevelt had wanted to turn Warm Springs into a fashionable resort, but it was slowly going broke.  There were no endowments, and each summer's polio epidemic added new survivors to the list of those who needed treatment.  In 1933, the fund-raising director, Keith Morgan, came up with the idea of promoting Warm Spring with a series of charity balls held across the country.  He named the local postmasters as honorary chairmen of the committees that organized the dances.  The dances were scheduled to coincide with Roosevelt's birthday at the end of January.  They were called "Celebration Balls in Honor of the President's Birthday."

It was more successful than anyone thought possible.  By 30 January 1934, six thousand "Birthday Balls" had been held across the nation.  One million dollars was netted to support the community at Warm Springs.

When November 1934 rolled around, the trustees of Warm Springs decided to make the Birthday Ball an annual event.  This looked like it was going to get too big for them to manage, and they decided to establish an independent commission to support research into the cause, treatment, and possible prevention of poliomyelitis.

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The President's Birthday Ball Commission was poorly organized.  Of the eleven people who agreed to serve on the commission, only one had any experience in medical research.  Paul de Kruif had studied bacteriology at the University of Michigan and worked in virology at the Rockefeller Institute before becoming a popular science writer.  He knew everyone in the field of microbiology, but he was not a cautious man.  He allowed the commission to fund intriguing but scientifically flawed projects.  One of them, the Brodie vaccine was ineffective and could cause severe allergic reaction.  It was released around the time as the Kolmer vaccine, which actually caused polio and several deaths.  Although the Kolmer vaccine was not funded by the commission, both vaccines were connected with it in the public eye, and support for the commission fell.

In 1937, Basil O'Connor urged Roosevelt to re-organize the commission to distance himself from it.  In September of that year, Roosevelt announced the organization of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.  It was incorporated in January 1938.  The NFIP would continue to fund Warm Springs, but would also help support polio victims around the nation and support research into the poliovirus, so that the next vaccine would be safe and effective. 

Almost immediately, the foundation got a new name.  In a planning meeting, comedian Eddie Cantor proposed using his radio show to solicit donations from average Americans.  A popular newsreel feature of the period was called "The March of Time."  Cantor called the fund-raising campaign "The March of Dimes," and planned to ask each listener to send a dime to the White House to help fight polio. 

The first appeal for the "March of Dimes" was aired during the last week of January 1938, to coincide with some Birthday Balls that were still being held.   Besides Eddie Cantor, the Lone Ranger also appealed to the nation's children to contribute dimes to help fight the disease that had crippled and killed so many other children.

Two days after the broadcast, the workings of the United States government were brought to a screeching halt.  The White House usually received 5,000 pieces of mail a day, but on that day, 30,000 letters were received.  The next day, 50,000 letters showed up.  Then 150,000 letters arrived.  The mail clerks couldn't find the President's business letters.  The White House chief of mail complained, "We got fifty extra postal clerks, but we still couldn't find anything but scrawled and finger-marked envelopes from every kid who could get his hands on a dime."  When all of the letters were opened, O'Connor discovered that his new foundation had raised $1.8 million dollars, $268,000 of which had been mailed to the White House a dime at a time.3

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Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny | Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1. Smith, Jane S.  Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine.   New York, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.  1990.  p. 50.

2.  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. 50.

3.  Smith, Jane S.  op. cit.  pp. 65-75.