President Franklin D. Roosevelt Founds the March of Dimes, Asking a Noted Philanthropist to Become One of the Initial Trustees

A polio victim himself, FDR was setting up an umbrella organization to coordinate research, development and rehabilitation efforts

“The outbreak of epidemics again this year tells but one story and that is that we must plan and put into force heroic measures to bring this disease under control…I feel that the time has very definitely arrived when all of these agencies and efforts should be coordinated under one head.”

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Founds the March of Dimes, Asking a Noted Philanthropist to Become One of the Initial Trustees

A polio victim himself, FDR was setting up an umbrella organization to coordinate research, development and rehabilitation efforts

“The outbreak of epidemics again this year tells but one story and that is that we must plan and put into force heroic measures to bring this disease under control…I feel that the time has very definitely arrived when all of these agencies and efforts should be coordinated under one head.”

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 for the rest of their lives. In 1921, at the relatively advanced age of 39, Franklin D. 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.

In 1926, to raise funds for polio rehabilitation, Roosevelt started the non-profit Georgia Warm Springs Foundation on the site of the springs he visited to partake of the waters’ therapeutic effects. Towards the end of 1937 he determined that rehabilitation was insufficient, that more needed to be done, and founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP). Officially kicked off on January 3, 1938, the NFIP was a non-partisan association of health scientists and volunteers that helped fund research for a polio vaccine in addition to assisting 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. So in 1938, Roosevelt decided to appeal to the general public for help. At one fundraiser, celebrity singer Eddie Cantor 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. The NFIP has been known as the March of Dimes ever since.

In subsequent 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. There has not been a case of polio in the United States since 1979.

Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr., whose father was a member of President McKinley’s Cabinet, was a philanthropist who was also active politically. He participated in the successful presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. In July 1916, he was named treasurer of the Republican National Committee, and also served as president of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Wilson named Bliss as one of the 13 members of his Red Cross War Council. The next year he became its acting chairman. Bliss also served on the National War Finance Committee which successfully raised a great deal of money for the Red Cross. In 1920 Herbert Hoover sought to tap his skills, experience and connections, and asked him to serve on New York City’s fund-raising committee for disaster aid to Europe.

Afterwards Bliss returned to business and philanthropy on a large scale, operating as a trustee, board member, or president of several organizations, including the Metropolitan Opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Depression, he was one of six men named by New York City Mayor Walker to operate a relief fund, two others being J.P. Morgan and former governor Al Smith. During World War II, he was a chairman of the American Red Cross committee on war activities, and was for a time chairman of the Red Cross.

FDR was acquainted with Bliss’s philanthropic activities and his willingness to work on a non-partisan basis, and requested that Bliss become one of the first trustees of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis – the March of Dimes.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, October 14, 1937. “I have asked Mr. Keith Morgan to discuss with you in person something which is very close to my heart – in a word, infantile paralysis. The outbreak of epidemics again this year tells but one story and that is that we must plan and put into force heroic measures to bring this disease under control. With the great impetus which has been given to the combating of the disease over the past 10 years, through the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and the agencies that it has both aided and created, and with the enormous cooperation available from both individuals and the general public, I feel that the time has very definitely arrived when all of these agencies and efforts should be coordinated under one head.

“I am attaching a copy of the statement given by me to the press, announcing the creation of this new organization and if you are in full enthusiastic accord with its purposes and with its needs, I should be very happy to have you become one of the Trustees.”

Bliss accepted the invitation and became an initial trustee of the NFIP. We obtained this letter directly from the Bliss descendants, and it has never before been offered for sale.

The March of Dimes still exists today, working to improve the health of mothers and babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality.

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