|This Week in History
January 24 30, 1945.
In the Midst of a Raging World War, FDR Calls for an All-Out Attack on Polio
On the occasion of President Franklin Roosevelt's birthday on January 30, it became traditional for him to address the "Birthday Balls" which were held to raise money for the fight against infantile paralysis. On his birthday in 1945, however, Roosevelt had already left the country on his way to the Yalta Conference. But because the fight against polio was a crucial one, Roosevelt's wife Eleanor read his speech over the hookup to the balls.
There had been a major polio epidemic in America in 1944, with the dreaded disease hitting over 18,000 children and adults. Unlike the situation in earlier epidemics, especially the major one of 1916, this time the medical infrastructure was in place to ensure a high survival rate as well as follow-up therapy for those who suffered crippling side effects. But there was still no cure, and no vaccine against the highly communicable disease.
Roosevelt's efforts, first through the Warm Springs Foundation, and then through the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, had been able to ensure adequate care for victims of polio. He had also succeeded in making Americans aware that with a major effort, they could contribute to finding a vaccine or a cure. Defeating polio had become a national project, and in 1945, the Foundation grossed over $18 million.
The success of the fundraising stemmed in part from an idea of comedian Eddie Cantor. Roosevelt had asked him to think about how the Foundation could get a million men to contribute a dollar a year. Instead, Cantor suggested that people be asked to mail dimes to the White House, calling it the "March of Dimes" against polio. Answering the call that was sent out every year in the weeks before the birthday balls, Americans sent millions of dimes to the White House; so many, in fact, that the President's assistants, his children, and many other staffers had to assist the mailroom in opening the letters.
When Roosevelt's 1945 Birthday Ball address was broadcast, there were significant medical developments on the horizon. In 1948, microbiologist John Franklin Enders and his colleagues Frederick Robbins and Thomas Weller were able to grow a virus in a medium of living cells. This was a major breakthrough in virology, because up to that time, it had only been possible to grow viruses in living chicken embryos, a process which could produce only a very small number of viruses for research purposes. Growing viruses in cell tissue had been tried before, but after a few days, the material had always been ruined by the growth of bacteria.
Enders was Chief of Research in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Boston, and his research group was attempting to find a cure for mumps. He realized that adding the new antibiotic penicillin to the nutrient mixture would suppress the growth of bacteria, and when the experiment succeeded, his research group turned its attention to the polio virus. The virus was successfully grown in tissue scraps, proving that sufficient quantity of the virus could be produced for research on producing a vaccine.
In 1949, Dr. Jonas Salk was chosen by the Infantile Paralysis Foundation to lead their research, and he used the culture method discovered by Enders. In 1952, the nation suffered the worst polio epidemic in its history, with almost 58,000 recorded cases. The research on developing a vaccine was pressed forward by the Foundation, which took out a large loan to supplement its income. By 1954, nationwide field trials of the Salk vaccine were in full swing, involving almost 2 million children in 44 states, who were called the "Polio Pioneers." Exactly ten years after Roosevelt's death, on April 12, 1955, the Foundation announced that the Salk vaccine was effective and safe, and mass inoculations began.
In 1945, this wonderful outcome was still ten years in the future, but Roosevelt was very aware that the fight against polio and the fight against the Nazis, with their evil view of the crippled and retarded as "lives not worthy to be lived," were just different aspects of the overall battle for human dignity. He made it clear that night in his address to the Birthday Balls: "I am sorry that wartime circumstances make it impossible for me to talk with you personally tonight on my birthday. I have asked Mrs. Roosevelt to read this brief message on my behalf to the many millions of Americans who contribute to the fight against infantile paralysis.
"This year, if I had a birthday cake, there would be 63 candles on it. But the years they represent seem very few to me tonight because your great generosity has made this day a testament to youtha promise to our children that the bright tomorrow for which we fight throughout the world will not be dimmed by the shadow of infantile paralysis at home.
"The success of the 1945 March of Dimes in the campaign against infantile paralysis does not come as a surprise to me. We are a nation of free people, and free people know how to go over the topwhether it's a Nazi wall, a Japanese island fortress, a production goal, a bond drive, or a stream of silver dimes. The reason for these achievements is no military secret. It is the determination of the many to work as one for the common good. It is such unity which is the essence of our democracy.
"Our national concern for the handicapped and the infirm is one of our national characteristics. Indeed, it caused our enemies to laugh at us as soft. 'Decadent' was the word they used. But not any more. They are learningand learning the hard waythat there are many things we are mighty tough about.
"We will never tolerate a force that destroys the life, the happiness, the free future of our children, any more than we will tolerate the continuance on Earth of the brutalities and barbarities of the Nazis or of the Japanese warlords.
"We combat this evil enemy of disease at home just as unremittingly as we fight our evil enemies abroad.
"Our work over the past decade in fighting infantile paralysis was put to its most rigorous test during this past year. The 1944 epidemic was the worst our country has experienced since 1916. But this time we were prepared with a nationwide network of defense that your dimes and dollars enabled us to build. Wherever and whenever an outbreak occurred, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and its community chapters sprang into activity. Almost overnight, afflicted areas were provided with trained personnel, supplies, and equipment.
"Tonight we are able to report that because of your cooperation, the very best in medical care and treatment has been assured for everyonefor the boys and girls, for the men and womenstricken by this disease. All of them have greater hope and confidence todaybecause they know you are with them and giving them powerful support in their fight.
"Yes, we can well be proud of the work of the National Foundation and its chapters. But as any fighting man will tell you, we cannot rest on defense alone. No matter how efficient and immediate the treatment is, it does not take the place of prevention and cure. We must continue to devote our attention ever more to attack. We must give our scientists and research workers the necessary equipment to find this invidious enemy, to corner and destroy him. The task is not an easy one. The mystery shrouding the infantile paralysis virus is not readily penetrated. But we will persistand we will triumph.
"There is no yardstick long enough to measure the happiness our children give us. Whatever we can contribute to promote our children's health is an investment in our country's future. It is an assertion of our American birthright to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."