Happy birthday FDR!
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This phrase, spoken by President Franklin Roosevelt in his inaugural address in 1933, brought sudden hope to millions of Americans suffering during the Great Depression. As Archivist of the March of Dimes, I am fascinated and inspired by Franklin Roosevelt for several reasons. Foremost among them is that FDR created the March of Dimes and the National Archives, but perhaps most remarkable is that FDR remains the only person in the history of the world elected as leader of his country yet could not walk or stand on his own. Stricken by paralytic polio at age 39, he never regained the use of his legs. Some say FDR tried to “hide” his polio disability, but I prefer to believe that he “stage managed” it for political ends. This included creating a concept and structure for the general fight against disease. What FDR accomplished in public health was to change the perception of disability and illness by creating an environment for successful recovery and re-integration into society at his polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia and by coordinating the organization of financial, scientific, and medical resources for the fight against disease through the March of Dimes.
At Warm Springs, FDR cast himself in the role of “Doc Roosevelt,” mingling freely with patients and taking genuine interest in their efforts to regain health. Though recovery from polio was often painful and incomplete, FDR’s polio colony was committed to remove the stigma of disability through its friendly, egalitarian environment at a time when any disability was perceived as a personal flaw. FDR’s visionary approach fostered independence and promoted social and psychological health. By the time FDR attained national prominence as President, America was suffering generally, snared in the Great Depression. One in every four persons was jobless. For countless people living hand-to-mouth, food and shelter were nonexistent. After the inauguration, FDR set in motion the rejuvenating social programs known as the New Deal. One year later, Warm Springs started an annual tradition – a birthday party for the president; not one, but hundreds throughout the U.S., to raise money for polio on January 30, FDR’s birthday.
FDR, with his law partner Basil O’Connor, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938, capitalizing on the popularity of the birthday balls and adding a fund-raiser with a magical name: The March of Dimes. The March of Dimes then developed during the greatest military cataclysm in history as Roosevelt was hailed by millions as world leader of free nations in the fight against fascism and world domination by the Axis powers. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR proposed Four Freedoms that all people should enjoy: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. To this, O’Connor later added a Fifth Freedom: Freedom from Disease. Though FDR could not have foreseen our present fight against prematurity and birth defects, today’s mission continues to gain momentum as part of President Roosevelt’s permanent legacy.
FDR brought the presidency into close intimacy with the American people through his fireside chats on radio and was beloved as a defender of the weak, the poor, the disabled, and the helpless. His reputation evolved from the New Deal, but it was his dauntless character that gave hope – he was fearless, ever optimistic, and had great good humor. He energized people and allowed them to release their own creative energies. He did not worry – he acted. On January 30, I will honor FDR on behalf of the March of Dimes by laying a wreath on his grave in a ceremony at Hyde Park, NY. In doing this, I believe that we also honor all the volunteers who have done so much for the March of Dimes, who have proven again and again that – in the words of Franklin Roosevelt – together we cannot fail.