A Century Ago, FDR Was Stricken with Polio, Changing HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Polio, Franklin Roosevelt
On the morning of Aug. 11, 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt got out of bed and tried to make it to the bathroom in the summer house on Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine, where he and his family had vacationed since he was a child.
He had felt sick the day before. After hours of sailing and swimming, his legs began to ache. He developed an uncontrollable shiver and had gone to bed early. Now, he was worse. He had a fever of 102, and as he struggled across the hall, his left leg gave way beneath him.
It was a transformative moment in American history, and the start of the “central event” in the life of one of the country’s greatest presidents, historian Hugh Gregory Gallagher has written.
On that morning 100 years ago this month, the man who would lead the United States through the Great Depression and World War II and expand the way government helped people, was experiencing the first crippling symptoms of polio.
He was 39, and the disease would soon place him in a wheelchair for most of the rest of his life.
It would alter his emotional makeup, Gallagher has written. It changed the way he viewed the world. And it would launch the exquisite political theater in which FDR engaged so famously on the public stage.
His rumpled fedora; his jaunty cigarette holder; his pince-nez glasses; his Naval cape; and the steel leg braces that let him stand and appear to walk on his own.
“The complete package of props,” Gallagher wrote.
“Together with the … tilt of the head, the wave of the hand …[and] the smile, made [him] seem to the American people … as close as a family member,” Gallagher wrote in his 1985 book, “FDR’s Splendid Deception.”
And although he worked hard to obscure the details of his disability, he was, in part, defined by it, admired and remembered for it. An element of his presidential memorial in Washington depicts him sitting in a special wheelchair he designed himself.
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