Franklin D. Roosevelt, Legs Paralyzed by Polio, Expresses Hope That He Will Walk Again Without Braces

The only letter of FDR expressing this hope and showing how he got through the rehabilitation that we can recall seeing

He turns to building a collection of historical scenic American prints as an “occupation for my hands”

In 1921, 39-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to face a future of unlimited success. But that same year he contracted polio, and was left paralyzed from the waist down. At the time there was no...

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Franklin D. Roosevelt, Legs Paralyzed by Polio, Expresses Hope That He Will Walk Again Without Braces

The only letter of FDR expressing this hope and showing how he got through the rehabilitation that we can recall seeing

He turns to building a collection of historical scenic American prints as an “occupation for my hands”

In 1921, 39-year-old Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to face a future of unlimited success. But that same year he contracted polio, and was left paralyzed from the waist down. At the time there was no known cause of, or cure for, polio, and the practice of the day was to hide anyone with the disability away from the public eye. Roosevelt was a fighter and was determined to walk again, and found hope after hearing about a young polio victim who learned to walk again after swimming in the waters of a health spa at Warm Springs near Atlanta. He moved there in 1924, and his initial cynicism about the run-down conditions and pitiable patients was gradually replaced by a deep empathy and understanding for the suffering of others, along with an optimism and inspiration that polio victims could be helped.

Warm Springs was not Roosevelt’s only venue for treatment. In 1925 he underwent treatment from Dr. William MacDonald in Marion, Massachusetts, who believed he could help FDR walk without braces, a hope FDR embraced. MacDonald also encouraged him to do tasks that would strengthen his hands.

As the FDR Library notes, “Franklin Roosevelt was a great collector. From an early age he gathered large collections of stamps, ship models, rare books, prints, coins, and drawings. By the time of his election as President, he had amassed one of the nation’s finest collections of naval art and impressive collections of Hudson River Valley art and historical prints. During the New Deal years, he collected hundreds of examples of art and crafts work produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other government agencies.  FDR placed all of his personal collections in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, which he created in 1941. These materials became the core of a Museum collection.”

Autograph letter signed, two pages, Marion, Massachusetts, September 20, 1925, to Edward Gottschalk, founder and owner of The Old Print Shop in New York, ordering prints to frame as part of his hand exercises and expressing the hope that he would walk again without braces. “I am up here for another two months taking special exercises for my legs and hope soon to get rid of braces & crutches. I need occupation for my hands & have gone with the business of framing pictures! Will you let my Secretary Miss Le Hand have about 100 old prints of American scenery (preferably N. Y. State & Hudson River) — 8vo size — the kind which came out in the early American magazines & which are worth about 10 cents a piece?”

Roosevelt believed in polio rehabilitation. When Warm Springs faced economic hardship in 1926, FDR invested two-thirds of his savings to purchase it for $200,000, and created a therapeutic center under the direction of the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. His facility opened its doors to patients all over the country, providing medical treatment and an opportunity to spend time with others suffering from the effects of polio. An enclosed pool funded by automotive pioneer Henry Ford’s son Edsel was added, and improvements began to be made. Physicians and physiotherapists worked with Roosevelt to develop muscle exercises. The “spirit of Warm Springs” became firmly entrenched as patients relearned to function in society and to laugh and enjoy life.

But FDR’s hope to walk again without braces was to be disappointed. The only steps he could take were with braces, and on the arm of someone (usually his son James) steadying him.

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