Roosevelt and his Paralysis (1 cent)

I recently read an interesting book, “FDR’s Splendid Deception”, by Hugh Gregory Gallagher, a book he wrote in 1985 and revised in 1994. The “splendid deception” relates to Roosevelt’s inability to walk (in fact, in ability to stand, as well) as a result of his 1921 attack of infantile paralysis, or polio. Gallagher’s thesis is, to generalize loosely, that everyone knew that Roosevelt couldn’t get about on his own, and everybody (i.e., Roosevelt himself, family members and advisers, press and even the general public), but no one said anything about it. It was basically ignored. Of thousands of photographs of Roosevelt found in various archives, only two show him in a wheel chair. Even Roosevelt’s biographers, says Gallagher, treat his polio attack as an episode in his life, not as something that affected him from then on.

When stricken, Roosevelt was almost 40 years old, had been both Undersecretary of the Navy and the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate in 1920. He had been married for 15 years and had 5 children. He was strong and active.

In dealing with Roosevelt’s reaction to his illness, you obviously cannot overlook his political career and the events that shaped his decision (after seven years of political inactivity) to run for Governor of New York and subsequently for President, his four presidential elections, and the momentous decisions he was required to make as a result of economic depression and world war. But these are not the issues that the book concentrates on – the focal point of the book is how his life was affected by his paralysis.

Gallagher is a very decisive biographer – he believes that certain things were done correctly, and certain things incorrectly. He equivocates very little. There may be areas where other biographers hesitate to state things conclusively; Gallagher has no such hesitation.

A few examples:

First, Gallagher is sure that Roosevelt was the victim of terrible medical advice and doctoring. When first stricken at the family summer home on Campobello Island, the local doctor diagnosed a bad cold. When the paralysis set in and things looked like they were getting worse, a doctor in Bar Harbor, Me. went through a number of incorrect diagnoses, and prescribed deep message to help ease pain and get blood circulating to the lower body. Only when nothing helped, was a third specialist called in who diagnosed polio. According to Gallagher, these mis-diagnoses, and the orders to give massages, made the situation worse. Were it not for these mistakes, the polio might have been less severe and Roosevelt might have walked again.

Similarly, in the mid-1940s, when Roosevelt, under the pressure of being president during World War II, began to show acute signs of strain, rather than treat his situation appropriately, Roosevelt was advised to cease all forms of exercise, he was advised to lose weight making it more difficult for him to support his leg braces, he was given medication that raised, rather than lowered, his very high blood pressure, all leading to acute arterial blockages, and his eventual cerebral hemorrhage, which killed him.

Another area relates to Roosevelt’s sex life. It seems that everyone agrees that his paralysis did not affect his sexual functioning. According to Gallagher (I don’t know if this is controversial or not), Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor ceased having sexual relations in 1918, three years before paralysis set in. It is obvious that, before and after his illness commenced, Roosevelt had close relations with a number of other women, most notably his assistant Missy LeHand, and his friend Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd. Gallagher is convinced that neither of these long term relationships involved consummated sexual activities. He says this, again, without hesitation or equivocation,, although most Roosevelt biographers do seem to reach a different conclusion. Not that this appears very important to me as an issue in examining his life, but it is surprising that the controversy surrounding the subject is ignored.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book involve Roosevelt’s discovery of the springs in the small town of Warm Springs, Georgia, as potentially having recuperative powers. Originally Warm Springs was a small resort for wealthy Southerners, not a health spa. But after Roosevelt started going to Warm Springs in the mid-1920s, enjoying the feel of the waters on his legs and hoping that therapy there would enable him to walk again, it became more and more a gathering place for people with mobility disabilities, and fewer and fewer regular guests showed up. In 1926 (which I did not know), Roosevelt, to the dismay of his family members, bought the Warm Springs resort, eventually creating his National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and independent non-profit which he in effect ran from the White House, where he started the mail-in March of Dimes campaign (entertainer Eddie Cantor suggested the name to him), which continues to this day.

The book is also interesting in describing the fate of Americans with mobility problems in an era before the advent of comfortable, motorized wheel chairs, before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so many other things to make mobility impairment less of an impairment than it was before, when patients were totally housebound, unable to attend schools, or institutionalized under horrific conditions.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Roosevelt’s unique personality and how he coped with his paralysis. Yes, he was wealthy and doted upon, which gave him advantages others would not have had. But he also had the world’s most difficult job, which he accomplished with extraordinary success in spite of his disabilities, in part by being able to cope with these disability by assuming they were temporary, by not talking about them, by keeping them “secret” in a world where his life was the most open of open books.

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