In the early 1900s, polio was widespread in the United States. In the summer of 1916, one of the worst epidemics hit; in New York City alone, 2,000 people died, and another 7,000 were affected. Panic struck as people tried to leave the city. Hospitals refused patients.
In 1921, the disease afflicted Franklin D. Roosevelt, impairing his ability to walk and changing his life forever. Through his struggles, FDR also grew as a person: Eleanor Roosevelt said the disease gave him courage and taught him patience. Others said the disease gave him compassion and understanding for the downtrodden and afflicted. The disease would help shape his presidential policies and the health of American children. It would also lead to Roosevelt founding the March of Dimes.
The Roosevelts and a man named Basil O'Connor started campaigns to raise money for polio victims, including black-tie Birthday Balls. In 1938, the musical-comedy star Eddie Cantor came up with the idea of asking people to send their dimes to the White House, and added, "We could call it the March of Dimes."
Within a week of a public appeal, desks, offices and corridors were buried with mailbags. A total of 2,680,000 dimes were received in the first March of Dimes.
These fundraising events helped to pay for hospital bills of polio patients and also paid for research. The March of Dimes funded Dr. Jonas Salk's groundbreaking work on the polio vaccine. Washington residents living in Kitsap, Whatcom and Yakima counties participated in the field trials.
On April 12, 1955, the polio vaccine was declared safe, potent and effective, paving the way for the eradication of polio in the United States.
Immunization has been cited as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, with millions of cases of disease, disability and death having been prevented. Within a six-year span, the polio vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in this country by 96 percent.
As the 50th anniversary of the Salk vaccine approaches, we honor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had the vision, willpower and drive to save children from polio.
We also thank and celebrate the volunteers, donors and scientists who make our victories possible ... from our first campaign to eradicate polio to our current campaign to decrease prematurity.
Our goal is to ensure all babies are born healthy.
Elaine Noonan, Washington state executive director for the March of Dimes, can be contacted at 1-800-291-DIME in Seattle.