Polio Pioneers

Polio and the U.S. Presidency

April 28, 2014 | by Susan Hutton

April 26, 2014, marked the 60-year anniversary of an unprecedented national field trial for the polio vaccine. In 1954, under the supervision of U-M’s Dr. Thomas Francis, 1.8 million kids in the first through third grades were given a piece of candy, a Polio Pioneer card, a lapel pin, and three shots as part of a massive double-blind study to test the safety and effectiveness of Jonas Salk’s dead-virus polio vaccine. The trial lasted for one year.

At the end of the year, the results were announced in Rackham Auditorium: the vaccine was safe, and it was effective. The trial marked the beginning of the end to a disease that had menaced parents and terrified the public. At its apex in 1952, nearly 58,000 cases of polio were reported. Ten years later there were fewer than 1,000.

FDR: Polio’s Public Face

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is, perhaps, the most well known of polio’s victims. The Man He Became, the latest book by LSA alumnus James Tobin (‘78), considers how polio affected his ascendency to the presidency, and the challenges his resulting disabilities created. Most people associate polio with FDR, but there is also a common perception that Roosevelt hid his illness from the public—a myth Tobin’s book dispels. While there is evidence that FDR worked to keep images of being wheelchair-bound away from public view, it was commonly known that he had polio.

In fact, argues Tobin, it was through his affliction with polio that Roosevelt was transformed into an underdog and became the symbol of a man who possessed uncommon grit and courage. And it was polio that gave him the compassion and insight that helped him connect to the American public.

Thomas Francis searches for polio vaccine.

Above: U-M epidemiologist Thomas Francis (middle) and fellow polio researchers examine a culture of polio virus. Top: Children participating in the 1954 field trials of the Salk vaccine were dubbed "polio pioneers." Cover photo: President and Mrs. Roosevelt talking to children who have polio in Warm Springs, Georgia.  

“From the start of the research,” says Tobin, “I was on the lookout for every moment, every scene, every revealing detail that might give a reader a vivid glimpse of what FDR was like and what he went through when he was recovering from this terrible setback.

“When you’re writing about disability,” Tobin continues, “it’s essential to develop some understanding not just of the physical problem, but of the social stigma that you have to deal with. The big problem is often not so much the disability itself as the way that people think about the disability, and therefore, about you. FDR’s rehabilitation, both physical and political, was all tied up with what people thought about disability in general and polio in particular.”

One way to capture that struggle was Tobin’s decision to use a word from FDR’s time that makes contemporary readers cringe. “The word ‘cripple,’” says Tobin, “is an emblem of all those assumptions, most of them silent, that Roosevelt had to overcome if he were going to go back into politics. [This idea] became the central thread of the book—how FDR had to deploy his very considerable skills to overcome people’s perception of what it meant to be crippled.”

Turning on a Dime

Today we’re more likely to associate March of Dimes with charitable walks than with FDR, but FDR founded the organization, originally called the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The name changed to March of Dimes in tribute to FDR’s often-repeated belief that if every person in the United States donated just one dime, then researchers would find a cure. In 1946, the decision to put FDR’s face on the dime permanently linked him to the organization. And, in the end, money from the March of Dimes helped to fund Dr. Salk’s research and led to a successful vaccine.

“I got the vaccine via sugar cube when I was young,” says Tobin, “and I knew that this was a kind of magic elixir against a terrible disease.

“When I got a little older,” he continues “I learned the story of the vaccine’s connections with Dr. Thomas Francis and U-M, so I think the broader story of polio had a little more resonance for me than it would have for a historian growing up in a different time and place.”

 

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