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The dimes that saved lives

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January 1942. FDR Library, NPx. 48-49:315

FDR pictured receiving a birthday cake decorated with checks for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. January 1942. FDR Library, NPx. 48-49:315

On April 12, 1955, a vaccine against polio was declared safe and effective.

Jonas E. Salk’s great discovery was too late for President Franklin Roosevelt, who had contracted polio in 1921, at age 39, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. But the President, who died in 1945, had been instrumental in funding research that eventually led to the vaccine.

Death and paralysis by polio was a very real threat in the early 20th century. Children could be confined to an iron lung if their muscles could no longer help them to breathe. In 1916 there were 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. And the epidemic continued to worsen: in 1952 there were 57,628 cases reported.

In 1938 Roosevelt created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. He had already been active in assisting victims of polio through the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation, a spa he had often visited to ease his symptoms and that he had purchased in 1926. Roosevelt raised money for this foundation through a series of balls held on his birthday. The first Birthday Ball in 1934 had 4,376 communities joining in 600 separate celebrations, and raised over a million dollars.

But the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was funded in a different way. In 1938, radio personality Eddie Cantor encouraged Americans to give their loose change to the cause, urging listeners to create “a march of dimes to reach all the way to the White House.”

Americans began emptying their pockets, and little bits of money soon added up. In 1945 the annual March of Dimes campaign raised $18.9 million for National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

When Salk’s vaccine was declared safe and effective in 1955, church bells were rung, and the nation celebrated. By 1957 the incidence of polio in the United Sates had dropped by 90 percent. It was too late for FDR, but it was a life-saving breakthrough for Americans and children around the world.

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