By Mary Miller Cullins
On January 3, 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an adult victim of polio, founds the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which he later renamed the March of Dimes Foundation.
In grade school I remember saving dimes on a cardboard cut-out from the March of Dimes. There were various slots, as I recall, for the days of the week that we could slip a dime into. Back then, I didn’t know any children (or adults, for that matter) who couldn’t walk or run. I just knew our class was saving money and we wanted to beat the other classes in the school. I knew it would help someone, I just didn’t know much about who or why.
A predominantly childhood disease in the early 20th century, polio wreaked havoc among American children every summer. The virus, which affects the central nervous system, flourished in contaminated food and water and was easily transmitted. Those who survived the disease usually suffered from debilitating paralysis into their adult lives. In 1921, at the relatively advanced age of 39, Roosevelt contracted polio and lost the use of his legs. With the help of the media, his Secret Service and careful event planning, Roosevelt managed to keep his disease out of the public eye, yet his personal experience inspired in him an empathy with the handicapped and prompted him to the found the March of Dimes.
In 1926, Roosevelt started the non-profit Georgia Warm Springs Foundation on the site of the springs he visited to partake of the waters’ therapeutic effects. Twelve years later, he reinvented the charity as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). The NFIP was a non-partisan association of health scientists and volunteers that helped fund research for a polio vaccine and assisted victims on the long path through physical rehabilitation. Funded originally through the generosity of wealthy celebrities at yearly President’s Birthday Balls, the foundation could not raise money fast enough to keep pace with polio’s continued toll on America’s children and, during the Depression, the polio epidemic worsened. In 1938, Roosevelt decided to appeal to the general public for help. At one fundraiser, celebrity singer Eddie Cantor jokingly urged the public to send dimes to the president, coining the term March of Dimes. The public took his appeal seriously, flooding the White House with 2,680,000 dimes and thousands of dollars in donations!
In later years, the March of Dimes continued to lead lucrative fundraising campaigns that set the model for other health-related foundations. In 1941, the foundation provided funding for the development of an improved iron lung, which helped polio patients to breathe when muscle control of the lungs was lost. The March of Dimes appointed Dr. Jonas Salk to lead research for a polio vaccine in 1949. Roosevelt, who died in 1945, did not live to see Salk develop and test the first successful polio vaccine in 1955. But thanks to President Roosevelt many lives were saved.
Dr. Jonas Salk