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Recalling  FDR, polio and the March of Dimes

Franklin D. Roosevelt helped make the fight against polio a national cause.
Franklin D. Roosevelt helped make the fight against polio a national cause.Maurice Constant / Library of Congress Prints
/ Source: NBC News

Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we remember Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president of the United States, and his involvement in the founding of the “ .”     

In the 1930s, thousands of Americans contracted polio and were often paralyzed or killed by this incurable disease. Roosevelt, sick himself with the disease, announced in late 1937 the establishment of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), in which he had a major role as the main supporter. NFIP focused on raising money for polio research and taking care of those affected by the disease.

Roosevelt, who contracted polio at age of 39, was extremely dedicated to making the fight against this disease a national cause. He even used his own birthday to increase donations for the cause by organizing charitable birthday balls.

The movement accelerated when Eddie Cantor, a famous entertainer of the '30s and an important supporter of the cause, made a radio announcement. He asked the nation to send money to the White House in a “March of Dimes” to fight polio and support the NFIP. At the time, he was referring to the very popular newsreel feature of the day, “The March of Time.” Quickly, millions of dimes flooded to the Oval Office. In 1945, the foundation raised $18.9 million. As a result of this huge success, the NFIP changed its name to the well known campaign, the “March of Dimes.”

In 1955, Jonas Salk created the vaccine that all but eradicated polio in most of the world by the 1960s.

In 1988, international organizations such as UNICEF, the Rotary Foundation and the World Health Organization started a global effort to eradicate polio. A new vaccine combined with this world effort helped reduce the number of cases per year by 99 percent. The Americas were declared polio-free in 1994, and Europe in 2002. Currently, an average of 1,000 cases per year are diagnosed in the world, and only four countries remain at risk: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The following is a fictitious interview with Roosevelt. Borrowing from the president’s real-life quotes, Alissa Haddaji created questions to ask about his involvement in the “March of Dimes.”

Q. You contracted polio at the age of 39, so it is a cause that is close to you. What is your story?

Roosevelt: Those who today are fortunate in being in full possession of their muscular power naturally do not understand what it means to a human being paralyzed by this disease to have the powerlessness lifted even to a small degree. It means the difference between a human being dependant on others and an individual who can be wholly independent. The public has little conception of the patience and time and expense necessary to accomplish such results.

Q. What is the message behind the “March of Dimes”?

Roosevelt: As I have said, the general purpose of the new foundation will be to lead, direct, and unify the fight on every phase of this sickness. It will make every effort to ensure that every responsible research agency in this country is adequately financed to carry on investigations into the cause of infantile paralysis and the methods by which it may be prevented.

Q. Why did you associate the NFIP with your own “Birthday Balls”?

: It is glorious to have one’s birthday associated with a work like this. One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. And that kinship, which human suffering evokes, is perhaps the closest of all, for we know that those who work to help the suffering find true spiritual fellowship in that labor of love. I am very deeply moved by the choice of my birthday anniversary for the holding of Birthday Balls in so many communities, great and small throughout the country.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to say to the Americans who donate to the cause?

Roosevelt: I thank you and through you all those who have made possible this splendid gift [donations made to NFIP].

Written and Researched by Alissa Haddaji