Franklin Delano Roosevelt with polio survivors at Warm Springs, Georgia.

Polio Is Almost Gone!

For thou­sands of years, peo­ple knew that chil­dren some­times became par­a­lyzed after a fever. Many peo­ple thought that the prob­lem was a result of teething. In real­i­ty, it was the result of a viral infec­tion that struck when the child was no longer pro­tect­ed by his or her moth­er’s anti­bod­ies. One or both legs could be affect­ed. Severe cas­es affect­ed the arms as well. The mus­cles in the par­a­lyzed limb would shrink from dis­use.

This ancient Egypt­ian carv­ing shows a man with a with­ered leg, which is a typ­i­cal result of polio.

Here’s a fas­ci­nat­ing lec­ture about the his­to­ry of polio and polio vac­cines:

In the old days, this prob­lem of infan­tile paral­y­sis occurred main­ly in young chil­dren, and the cas­es were spread out over time. But start­ing in the late 1880s, big epi­demics of this prob­lem start­ed hap­pen­ing in Europe. In the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, big epi­demics of polio start­ed hap­pen­ing in the Unit­ed States. Many young peo­ple died or were par­a­lyzed. In some cas­es, even the mus­cles of the diaphragm were par­a­lyzed. These patients could sur­vive only with the help of an iron lung. Here’s a doc­u­men­tary about a woman who lived for 60 years in an iron lung.

In 1921, Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt came down with a fever that led to a case of per­ma­nent paral­y­sis. At the time, most peo­ple assumed that his paral­y­sis was due to polio. Recent­ly, how­ev­er, some med­ical his­to­ri­ans have sug­gest­ed that the cor­rect diag­no­sis might have been Guil­lain-Bar­ré syn­drome, which caus­es a sim­i­lar form of paral­y­sis. Yet Roo­sevelt’s diag­no­sis of polio, whether it was cor­rect or not, changed his­to­ry.

Roo­sevelt nev­er gave up hope that his paral­y­sis would be cured. At the resort in Warm Springs, Geor­gia, Roo­sevelt met many chil­dren who had been par­a­lyzed by polio. In 1927, Roo­sevelt bought the Warm Springs resort and ded­i­cat­ed it to the care of polio sur­vivors.


In 1927, Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt bought the Warm Springs resort and turned it into a cen­ter for sur­vivors of polio. He became Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States in 1933.

In 1932, Roo­sevelt was elect­ed Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States. While he was Pres­i­dent, he found­ed the Nation­al Foun­da­tion for Infan­tile Paral­y­sis, to com­bat polio. The orga­niz­ers of an ear­ly fund-rais­er sug­gest­ed that the peo­ple could send dimes to the White House to sup­port polio research. Singer/songwriter Eddie Can­tor sug­gest­ed that peo­ple were send­ing their dimes march­ing to Wash­ing­ton, so he called it the March of Dimes. The orga­ni­za­tion’s name was even­tu­al­ly changed to the March of Dimes. Dr. Jonas Salk, whose work was fund­ed by the March of Dimes, devel­oped the first effec­tive polio vac­cine. After the devel­op­ment of an effec­tive polio vac­cine, the March of Dimes turned its atten­tion to pre­vent­ing and man­ag­ing birth defects.

When Dr. Jonas Salk announced the suc­cess of the first polio vac­cine, he became a nation­al hero.

Salk’s vac­cine was a “killed” vac­cine, which meant that it con­tained virus­es that were so bad­ly dam­aged that they could not be tak­en up and copied by a liv­ing cell. Thus, these “killed” virus­es can­not cre­ate an infec­tion. The prob­lem with the orig­i­nal Salk vac­cine was that it was not com­plete­ly effec­tive. In 1962, a “live” polio vac­cine devel­oped under the lead­er­ship of Dr. Albert Sabin was intro­duced. Sabin’s vac­cine made it pos­si­ble to erad­i­cate polio. Not only was it more effec­tive in pre­vent­ing paral­y­sis, it was bet­ter at pre­vent­ing poliovirus infec­tion. The prob­lem with the live vac­cine was that the vac­cine virus­es some­times mutat­ed back to a dan­ger­ous form. As a result, an improved ver­sion of the “killed” vac­cine is now used in areas where polio is no longer cir­cu­lat­ing.

Today, the world is in the final stages of a cam­paign to dri­ve polio into extinc­tion. Soon, we will be liv­ing in a polio-free world.