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People Mailed Dimes ‘By The Truck Load’ to FDR’s White House to Cure Polio

He was America’s first and only president with a visible—and known—disability

President Franklin D. Roosevelt exits a car during a campaign stop in California. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president with a visible disability, caused by polio. (FDR Library, public domain)
smithsonian.com

What can ten cents buy you? Today, virtually nothing. In 1938, though, it could buy about what $1.71 would today.  It could also help cure polio.

The story of polio and the March of Dimes Foundation, which was officially incorporated on this day in 1938, is really about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the United States’ most popular presidents and the thirty-second man to hold that office.

Polio isn’t really a threat now, thanks to regular vaccinations and years of work, but in the early twentieth century it was a regular horror. “Polio wreaked havoc among American children every summer,” according to History.com. “The virus, which affects the central nervous system, flourished in contaminated food and water and was easily transmitted.” Nobody was safe, not even future President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was diagnosed with  the disease at the unusually advanced age of 39. Thankfully, though, Roosevelt had the power—and popularity—to do something about it.

Roosevelt’s diagnosis came 11 years before his presidential campaign, writes Christopher Clausen for The Wilson Quarterly. He was elected governor of New York with his disability, and then president. Although there is a modern myth that people didn’t know Roosevelt used a wheelchair, he writes, they did know—he just didn’t advertise it, strategically presenting himself and restricting photo opportunities.

But the fact people knew may have contributed to their warm response to his polio fundraising efforts, first at annual “birthday balls” and then when he announced the creation of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (what polio used to be called) in late 1937, which became the March of Dimes the next year.

“Over the past few days bags of mail have been coming, literally by the truck load, to the White House,” he said in a speech published in The President’s Birthday Magazine on January 30, 1938—his birthday. “In all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills—gifts from grown-ups and children—mostly from children who want to help other children get well.” It was too much for the White House to handle, he said, which is why the new foundation was created.

The press immediately responded to the President’s new foundation, Clausen writes. Time’s story began with the lead, “Franklin Roosevelt is not only the nation’s No. 1 citizen but its No. 1 victim of infantile paralysis.”

Those truck loads of mail continued, funding the Foundation, which directly funded and administrated Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin’s vaccines for the virus. Dimes were always the focus of fundraising efforts, and the "March of Dimes" slogan was used in fundraising radio broadcasts that first year.

Why dimes? Most people could spare one, foundation administrator Eddie Cantor explained at the time, and they add up. “The March of Dimes will enable all persons, even the children, to show our President that they are with him in this battle against this disease,” he said.

That first year, FDR received $268,000, or more than two and a half million dimes. Eventually, it all added up to a cure.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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