- Historic Sites
FDR’s War with Polio
Have historians underestimated the importance of Roosevelt’s twenty-four-year struggle with the disease that made him a paraplegic?
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
The afternoon of August 26, 1933, was warm and sunny in Poughkeepsie, and a large crowd had gathered on the Vassar College campus for a Dutchess County reception in honor of the area’s most illustrious citizen, Franklin Roosevelt. The new President had motored over from Hyde Park, and his open Packard had brought him to within a few steps of the outdoor platform from which he would speak. As he finished his remarks, a local physician named Harold Rosenthal stationed himself next to the car. He had his 16mm movie camera with him and was eager to get some close-up footage of FDR to show his family and friends. The result—less than a minute of silent black-and-white film recently deposited at the FDR Library in Hyde Park—is a unique historical document.
Rosenthal began filming as Roosevelt and his aides left the specially built ramp that led down from the platform, perhaps thirty feet away. The President wears a dark jacket and white summer pants. His left hand grips the right arm of his stocky bodyguard, Gus Gennerich; his right fist holds a cane on which he leans heavily. As he starts to move forward along the dappled path, a member of his party steps out from behind him and hurries toward the camera. His expression is pleasant but purposeful; he is a Secret Service man and he silently orders Rosenthal to stop filming. The doctor complies, but not before we have clearly seen FDR take three unsteady steps, his head and torso rocking alarmingly from side to side as he heaves himself forward from the hips. It is suddenly, shockingly clear that nothing works below those hips; his legs, encased in hidden braces, are utterly stiff and so wasted that there seems nothing of substance within his billowing trousers.
The camera stops, then starts again—Dr. Rosenthal was evidently not easily discouraged. Roosevelt is now so close that his broad shoulders and big profile fill the whole screen. Only the ghost of his customary smile is present; his jaw is set, his eyes downcast; he looks uneasy, even irritated, as his helplessness is captured by the loudly whirring camera just inches away. (FDR is waiting while, out of the frame, an aide opens the car door so that he can be helped to turn around and fall back along the seat; the aide will then unsnap his braces, allowing his knees to bend while he swings himself into a normal sitting posture.) Again, the film is interrupted, and when it resumes once more, FDR is safely in his seat—and transformed: his head cocked companionably, the famous grin in place, he shouts greetings to old friends in the crowd. He is himself again.
Franklin Roosevelt was President for a dozen crowded years. No man has ever been filmed or photographed more often. Yet among all the hundreds of thousands of still pictures and miles of movie film, this brief amateur footage is the only clear, close-up glimpse we have of the central physical fact of his life—that he was not just “lame” as millions believed, or merely crippled, but in fact a polio paraplegic, powerless to stand unaided on fragile limbs that an examining physician once described with harrowing objectivity as “flail legs.”
Hugh Gregory Gallagher brings a certain hard-won expertise to FDR’s Splendid Deception, his provocative new study of Roosevelt’s illness and its impact upon him. Like FDR, Gallagher is a “polio”—a term he understandably prefers to polio “victim” or “survivor”; like him, too, he lives confined to a wheelchair and was a patient at Warm Springs, the Georgia treatment center Roosevelt established in the twenties. He argues persuasively that most of FDR’s biographers have gravely underestimated the importance of Roosevelt’s polio, relegating it to a chapter or two as just the most formidable of the series of obstacles he overcame on the way to the White House.
As he clearly shows, no one ever truly “conquers” polio: its physical damage can never be undone; its psychological assault on any patient’s self-esteem takes a lasting toll. The limitations paralysis imposed on FDR affected every waking hour of his life from the onset of the disease in 1921 until his death, twenty-four years later. He was unable even to get into bed by himself: late one night during the war, his son John returned to the White House to find the leader of the Allied world alone in his bedroom, still dressed and trapped in his wheelchair; his valet had had too much to drink and had fallen asleep.