January 3 – Happy Birthday, March of Dimes!

Posted on January 3, 2017

Which of the U.S. presidents suffered from polio (before he was president)?

Which U.S. president, on this date in 1938, started a national foundation to combat polio?

It probably doesn't surprise you that the answer to both questions is the same: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Polio is an infectious disease. Some people who catch polio suffer from such weakness in their muscles that they aren't able to move; some of the people who suffer from "infantile paralysis" (another name for the disease) die. When FDR created the March of Dimes, the U.S. was suffering from a polio epidemic! As mentioned above, Roosevelt himself had had polio, and because of the disease he was unable to move his legs.

Luckily, these days almost everyone in the developed world and many in the "Third World" has access to the polio vaccine (which was first developed by Jonas Salk). Actually, it's hoped that the enormous vaccination efforts worldwide will eradicate the disease in just a few years!

Roosevelt's original name for the foundation was National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. Just a few weeks into the organization's life, an actor named Eddie Cantor inspired a nationwide fundraising effort for the foundation: he asked nightclubs and cabarets to hold dance competitions and send in a portion of their profits to fight polio, and he asked those in the motion picture and radio businesses to create special features to raise funds, as well. What about the average citizen? Cantor suggested that people buy lapel pins for a dime, and so many people mailed letters to the White House, enclosing a dime to fight polio, that people said that the mail "swamped" the White House!

Cantor got the idea for the much snappier name "March of Dimes."

Roosevelt reported that letters with dimes, quarters, and even dollar bills were coming into the White House by the truckload, including more than 40,000 letters a day, for a while. 

After that, the March of Dimes held an annual fundraiser asking children to donate a dime each. During the Christmas season, booths were set up so that kids could drop their dimes into a slot. Many times the booths were on the honor system -- nobody watched over them!

Because of the success in fighting polio, the organization that Roosevelt started widened its efforts to improve the health of mothers and babies by preventing birth defects, lowering rates of infant mortality, and even preventing premature births.

Did you know...?

Because F.D. Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes, after his death the dime was redesigned to show his profile.

Also on this date:

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