Today, few can imagine the fear that struck at the hearts of parents and all Americans when they heard the world “polio”. Until the development of a vaccine by the famous virologist, Dr. Jonas Salk, poliovirus was such a dreaded disease that, according to a Public Broadcasting System documentary, “ The Polio Crusaders" in the early 1950s, a majority of American parents felt that aside from their fears of attack by an atom bomb, their biggest fear was polio.
For decades, the polio virus had hit the country in wave after wave. In the epidemic of 1952, more than 20,000 Americans, most of them children, were left with some level of paralysis and more than 1,300 died of the disease. Polio was spread by person to person through contact through the skin or by ingestion from contaminated food or water. A victim would quickly become sick as the infection entered the spinal cord resulting in paralysis which could prove fatal to this incurable disease.
In the summer of 1921, a rising political star in the Democratic Party, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a member of Holland Masonic Lodge No. 8 in New York, was on a family holiday vacationing on an Island off of the coast of Maine. Campobello was a favorite getaway for the active and dynamic Roosevelt family where they could escape the heat of New York. After a day of swimming in the ocean, 28-year old Roosevelt ran a fever which quickly resulted in numbness then partial paralysis of his face, vital organs including colon, bladder, respiratory system and legs. Diagnosed with poliomyelitis, Roosevelt was dangerously ill and while the paralysis in his face and trunk of his body faded away, he was never to regain the use of his legs and remained paralyzed from the waist down until his death in 1945.
Throughout the reminder of his life, Roosevelt continued his rise in politics but he and his advisors took great care to hide his disability fearing it would tarnish his political star. He was seldom seen in a wheelchair and could only stand or walk to and from a podium to give speeches with the assistance of both heavy braces on his leg and leaning on the steady arms of his advisors. Roosevelt felt strongly that hydrotherapy could help rehabilitate the weakened limbs of polio victims. In 1926, he founded a camp for polio patients in the rolling hills near Warm Springs, Georgia.
On January 3, 1928, Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis which later became known as the March of Dimes. Interestingly, a few medical researches today have speculated that FDR may have been misdiagnosed with polio and, in fact, may have suffered from a rare contagious disease called Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which can paralyze the the peripheral nervous system, However, there is no doubt that Franklin D. Roosevelt brought the Nation’s attention to the plight of polio victims and his Foundation was the doorway to raising funds to find a vaccine to fight polio.
Another Freemason, entertainer Eddie Cantor, deserves the credit for coming up with the new name for the Foundation as the March of Dimes. Cantor, famous on stage and radio for his singing, dancing and comedic antics, and a member of Munn Lodge No. 190, New York City, quipped during a radio broadcast in 1938 that instead of a “March of Time”, the public should join with him and FDR in a "March of Dimes" to raise needed funds for polio research and treatment. Cantor’s idea was that rather than rely only on wealthy donors, the fight to save children from polio would best be served by Americans, young and old, sending small amounts of even just one dime, to fund the fight against polio. The imaginative name and innovative fundraising campaign which included compelling “poster child” images and appeals by celebrities caught fire. Within a few short weeks, more than 2 million dimes were sent to President Roosevelt.
At the height of the Great Depression when even pennies were in short supply, generous Americans dug into their pockets for a dime or more and sent their contribution to the March of Dimes. By the mid 1960s, the March of Dimes was the most well known charity in the country with millions of donors from Maine to California saving their dimes and doing their part to stamp out this crippling disease.
Thanks to the countless donors and volunteers including FDR and Eddie Cantor, and the expert researchers and scientists as well as community leaders in organizations including the Freemasons, today polio has been eradicated in the US and in most of the modern world. Vaccinations are routinely given to children in a series of four injections between two months to six years of age to protect them from what was once, the most dreaded disease in the world.
Today, in 2021, we can remain hopeful that our scientists and researchers will continue to find innovation for prevention and treatment of new viruses.