The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidencyby James Tobin
Here, from James Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, is the story of the greatest comeback in American political history, a saga long buried in half-truth, distortion, and myth—Franklin Roosevelt’s ten-year climb from paralysis to the White House.
In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt was the brightest young
Here, from James Tobin, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography, is the story of the greatest comeback in American political history, a saga long buried in half-truth, distortion, and myth—Franklin Roosevelt’s ten-year climb from paralysis to the White House.
In 1921, at the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt was the brightest young star in the Democratic Party. One day he was racing his children around their summer home. Two days later he could not stand up. Hopes of a quick recovery faded fast. “He’s through,” said allies and enemies alike. Even his family and close friends misjudged their man, as they and the nation would learn in time.
With a painstaking reexamination of original documents, James Tobin uncovers the twisted chain of accidents that left FDR paralyzed; he reveals how polio recast Roosevelt’s fateful partnership with his wife, Eleanor; and he shows that FDR’s true victory was not over paralysis but over the ancient stigma attached to the disabled. Tobin also explodes the conventional wisdom of recent years—that FDR deceived the public about his condition. In fact, Roosevelt and his chief aide, Louis Howe, understood that only by displaying himself as a man who had come back from a knockout punch could FDR erase the perception that had followed him from childhood—that he was a pampered, too smooth pretty boy without the strength to lead the nation. As Tobin persuasively argues, FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio.
The Man He Became affirms that true character emerges only in crisis and that in the shaping of this great American leader character was all.
Many books have been written about Franklin Roosevelt’s life in politics, but here Tobin (Ernie Pyle’s War) takes a risk by telling the story of one of the country’s most popular presidents from a largely unexplored angle. As the subtitle suggests, this book looks at Roosevelt’s life from the time he contracted polio to the time he became president, and does so with a compassionate view. To keep the book from becoming a maudlin sympathy tale, Tobin considers some obvious but important questions: How did Roosevelt overcome his “handicap” to become president? Would he have become president had he not contracted polio? What effect did his affliction have on him personally? How did his accomplishments affect the perception of handicapped persons generally? The conclusion may be surprising to many: “that he became president because of polio” and the advantages it afforded him during a turbulent period in Democratic Party politics. Personal items are not glossed over—Tobin makes it clear that F.D.R. was not always kindest to those closest to him and that his family life was tense—and the myriad medical and political details are coupled with glimpses of his vulnerable moments. Tobin’s balanced and detailed approach offers a well-rounded look at a slice of F.D.R.’s life generally obscured from popular accounts, and it makes for fascinating reading. (Nov.)
Tobin (journalism, Miami Univ., OH; Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II) shows his gifts as a veteran reporter, PhD historian, and biographer in this moving page-turner. Even if aspects of the thesis—that Franklin D. Roosevelt's battle with polio transformed him—are familiar, Tobin conveys it marvelously. He supplies context on the disease itself and efforts at patient rehabilitation, while offering balanced and perceptive sketches of FDR, his cohorts, and the general public. After 39-year-old FDR was stricken with polio in 1921, it was his adviser Louis Howe's journalistic and public skills that kept FDR politically viable as he demonstrated his mettle fighting both the disease and public opinion about a disabled person in public office. FDR became a teacher both to others afflicted with the disease and the public who feared it. Tobin has a real knack for capturing the essence of the historical figures he's discussing. Much more than a mere rehashing of this aspect of FDR's life, the book shows how his response to polio gives us insights into his character and how he would go on to battle the Great Depression and World War II enemies. VERDICT Tobin's thoroughly enjoyable work will interest both scholars and general readers who seek stories of the human spirit triumphing over calamity. Highly recommended.—William D. Pederson, Louisiana State Univ., Shreveport
A winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award (Ernie Pyle's War, 1997) returns with an account of Franklin Roosevelt's struggles with polio and how they shaped his political career. Tobin (Journalism/Miami Univ., Ohio; To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight, 2003, etc.) focuses on 1921–1932, the years that frame FDR's contracting polio and his winning his first presidential election. Throughout, the author emphasizes his thesis: FDR did not win elections in spite of his polio but because of it. Tobin begins with some moments before FDR took his first presidential oath of office in 1933, then he takes us back to the summer of 1921, where he speculates about how FDR contracted the disease. Here--and throughout--Tobin instructs us about the polio virus: how it enters the system ("via specks of human waste"), what it does once it gets there, the varieties of damage it does and the treatments available in the decade of the book's focus. Tobin does a fine job of showing us how the virus knocked FDR down, how one physician completely misdiagnosed his case, and how FDR dealt with the grievous pain, both physical and psychological. We also meet people who helped in various ways--from his wife, Eleanor, to his aide Louis Howe and several secretaries, physical therapists and physicians. The author also dispels the nonsense that FDR somehow hid his illness from the public (everyone knew: It was continually in the newspapers) and chronicles the long, slow struggle that eventually enabled him to sit, stand and walk (braced and otherwise aided). He used a wheelchair only for short periods and only at home. We see, as well, the evolution of his relationship with his wife and his complicated choreography with fellow New York politician Al Smith. Medical history, physical and psychological stress, and human ambition are the prominent strands in this rich narrative carpet.
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Read an Excerpt
The Man He Became
– July 28, 1921 –
The virus that causes poliomyelitis entered Franklin Roosevelt’s body in the summer of 1921. At the moment of infection he was a famous and vigorous young man on the rise toward national leadership. The virus was small beyond imagining.
Ten more years would go by before the first electron microscopes revealed that the poliovirus resembles a distant planet inscribed with tiny canyons. The virus is not alive in the way a bird is alive or even in the way a bacterium is alive. It is nothing more than a little sphere of fat enclosing a smaller strip of genetic material. It cannot move by itself. It does not eat or breathe. It is at most half-alive—a parasite. To reproduce, it must enter a human body, then survive an onslaught from the protective machinery of the body’s immune system, then blunder up against a welcoming cell in the human intestine. If the virus can burrow inside that cell, its fatty capsule dissolves, exposing the strip of genetic chemicals within. Then a bizarre meshing of genetic equipment ensues. Like the two sides of a zipper, the strip from the virus unites with a matching strip from the intestinal cell, forming an assembly line that begins to duplicate the original virus by the thousand. Overloaded, the cell bursts, the virus’s progeny collide with neighboring intestinal cells, and the multiplication spreads.
Even then, the effect of this submicrocosmic production would likely be negligible. Most of the virus’s human hosts suffer nothing worse than a headache and a mild fever. The immune system overwhelms the virus and flushes it out of the body, and the human host goes on with life none the wiser.
But in a fraction of those infected—fewer than one percent—the virus escapes from the intestinal tract into the central nervous system. It has an affinity for certain cells in the spinal cord that govern the movement of muscles. If the virus finds these cells, it destroys them—sometimes only a few, sometimes a great many. The number of spinal-cord cells destroyed determines the fate of the human host. If only a few cells are destroyed, the host might be only temporarily hobbled, then recover completely. If a great many cells are destroyed, depending on their number and location, he might be left badly damaged or dead.
Outside the human host, the virus can escape disintegration for as long as six months. To propagate—its only purpose, if it can be said to have a purpose—it must find its way into a susceptible human being. Its best chance of doing so comes in the heat of summer.
• • •
The whole Northeast had been roasting for days. In Rochester, New York, police were attributing a double murder and suicide to “heat-craze.” In New York City, the chief clerk of the Edison Electric Company collapsed of heat prostration and died. Inside Manhattan’s Traffic Court, the magistrate allowed boys to roam through the courtrooms to sell lemonade. On 10th Street in Greenwich Village, members of Fire Engine Company 18 filled their portable water tank and waved the kids in—dozens of sweaty boys in woolen pants, jostling and dunking each other, spitting and swallowing the cloudy water.
So it was a good day to get out on the Hudson River, where at least there might be a breeze. And Franklin Roosevelt would seize any chance to get afloat. He loved the water. On his mother’s side he was the scion of an old seafaring family. He had grown up sailing small boats on the mid-Hudson and among rocky islands of the northern seacoast. As a teenager his great ambition had been to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and command ships at sea. But his parents had said no, that his future lay among men like the ones he was joining for today’s outing on the river: well-dressed, well-educated, well-heeled men of business, law, and government. All were friends of the Greater New York Council of the Boy Scouts of America, of which Roosevelt had just been elected chairman.
He found them gathering just after lunch in the clubhouse of the Columbia Yacht Club, a pleasant, low building with broad porches and big windows on Riverside Drive at the foot of West 86th Street. They mingled in paneled rooms hung with lovely old naval prints like the ones in Roosevelt’s own collection, one of the finest of its kind in the country. Soon the men moved to the pier outside, then boarded small boats to be ferried to the steam yacht Pocantico, pride of Barron G. Collier, the largest landowner in Florida and one of the richest men in New York. Just after 2 o’clock, the yacht slid away from the city’s edge and began to glide north up the river. It was bound for Bear Mountain State Park, forty miles north, where the men would join hundreds of Boy Scouts for a tour of inspection and a big dinner.
Scouting was all the rage, with a heavy concentration of members in New York and its suburbs. Among these boys, the summer outing to Bear Mountain was the focus of the entire year. Throughout the fall and winter, Scouts attended weekly meetings to learn skills to apply on the annual campout—fire making, forestry, astronomy, mapping, compass reading, signaling, outdoor cooking. The whole point of the Scouting year was to prepare for this trip. The boys earned the right to go.
Roosevelt heartily approved of the Scouts. His oldest son was a Scout already, and he wanted his three younger boys to join when they could. He believed city boys should hike forest trails and learn to build a fire without matches. He himself had grown up tramping the woods and wetlands of his family’s home up the Hudson, shooting and stuffing birds. That, to his mind, was a proper boyhood. A city-bred Boy Scout may be “a product of the streets and of artificial conditions of living,” he wrote, yet he “discovers that the woods, the birds, the fields, the streams, the insects speak a language he understands.”
But he was taking today’s trip to Bear Mountain not just for the sake of the Scouts, nor just to escape the sweltering city. It was the sort of event he attended these days as often as he could, for political purposes.
From 1913 to 1920—exhausting years of rearming, war, and demobilization—he had been assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Then, just a year before, in July 1920, the Democratic Party had nominated him to run for vice president. (At thirty-eight, he had been two years younger than Theodore Roosevelt, his uncle by marriage and distant cousin by blood, when the latter had been nominated for vice president in 1900.) Roosevelt and his presidential running mate, Governor James M. Cox of Ohio, had been beaten badly by Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. But Roosevelt had sealed his status as a rising star, and now he was cultivating the associations he would need for a statewide race in New York.
He might run as early as the following year, in 1922, when he would be just forty years old. He might make a bid for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by William Calder, the Republican real estate developer who had built much of Brooklyn but made no discernible mark in Washington. Or he might challenge Nathan Miller, the Republican governor who had barely nudged the popular Al Smith out of Albany in the Harding-Coolidge landslide of 1920. Al Smith was Roosevelt’s ally and friend—of a sort; if he decided to run for governor again, Roosevelt would defer to him. If not, Roosevelt would make a highly plausible Democratic candidate for governor of the Empire State—and thereby become, quite automatically, a potential candidate for president.
There was no need to decide any of that now, in the summer of 1921. For the moment, after eight years entrenched in Washington, Roosevelt was simply reestablishing himself as a New Yorker—thus the chairmanship of the local Boy Scout council and a list of other good works for worthy local organizations. Each endeavor meant more opportunities to make new friendships and bolster old ones. On this day trip to Bear Mountain, for instance, every handshake, every quiet chat, every photograph for the newspapers might do a little good toward the greater goal. He was only thirty-nine years old. He possessed one of the great names in American politics. He planned to do a great deal.
Aboard Pocantico he was a tall figure telling stories and shouting with laughter (“. . . I love it . . .”). As a student at the exclusive Groton School and Harvard, he had not excelled in sports, but he certainly looked like an athlete. He stood an inch or so above six feet but somehow seemed larger, perhaps because of his especially large head and jutting chin and his habit of quick and incessant movement. In Washington he had hurled himself into weekend matches in golf, tennis, baseball, and field hockey. During the world war he had plunged into exercises and cross-country runs organized for government men by the great Yale football coach Walter Camp, who called Roosevelt “a beautifully built man with the leg muscles of an athlete.” At his family’s summer home on the island of Campobello, New Brunswick, he loved to lead his five children through a risky chase game called Hare and Hounds, which involved racing up and down rocky escarpments. Instead of walking he often jogged or ran. An associate during the war remembered him flying down the steps of the Naval Observatory, “two, three, or four at a time, bobbing up and down like a man jumping rope.” At his home in upstate New York he chopped trees, sailed iceboats, sledded with his children, and charged back up the slopes at full tilt.
Yet for all his vigor, something made him not quite the quintessential “man’s man.” In his twenties he had been rather staggeringly handsome. At the time of his engagement in 1904, his nineteen-year-old fiancée had blurted to a friend: “I can never hold him; he is too attractive!” But he had been handsome in a slightly prissy way. A reporter who compared his looks to those of his world-famous cousin, then the president of the United States, said that while nature had left Theodore Roosevelt’s blocky head “unfinished,” it had lavished perhaps a little too much loving attention on Franklin Roosevelt’s face. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s nieces, Corinne Robinson Alsop, later likened Franklin’s youthful looks to the beau ideal of the Victorian commercial artist. “There used to be satin handkerchief boxes,” she remarked once, “and on top of them there were painted figures with a gentleman dancing a minuet with a handkerchief in his hand. . . . In our family we called a certain type ‘handkerchief box-y’,” and that was Franklin in his early twenties. “Franklin wasn’t effeminate,” she said, “but he wasn’t rugged.” Theodore Roosevelt’s daughters liked to point out that their sturdy brothers, as young men, had rowed, while Franklin had sailed; they thought that was a revealing difference. They had always said, with titters, that their distant cousin’s initials might have stood for “Feather Duster.” And if Corinne Robinson Alsop insisted FDR was “not effeminate,” her acid-tongued aunt, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, had referred to him as “Miss Nancy”—slang in society circles for “homosexual.” That was pure calumny; Roosevelt’s preference for women was obvious throughout his life. Yet others too saw some thread in his fabric that struck them as vaguely feminine. The journalist Marquis Childs would later say he had “a kind of feminine intuition . . . the quality of the actor . . . who could be photographed and who could speak always with just the right camera angle.” An associate of later years remarked that he was “the most androgynous man I ever knew.” No man acted more hale and hearty, but he used language that a conventional “man’s man” might hesitate to use—when he was ill, for instance, he might say he felt “weak as a kitten.” He seemed a little more at ease with women than he did with men. His father had been twenty-five years older than his mother, who had the more powerful personality of the two parents. Indeed, Roosevelt had been dogged since youth, even among relatives and good friends, by the assumption that he was a “mama’s boy.” In fact, though his mother tried to make his decisions and determine his course, he had been defying her and setting his own course since his teenage years.
By now, nearing the age of forty, the slim dandy of the handkerchief box had grown thicker and ruddier. He no longer took care to dress snappily, but, as a woman friend said, “You couldn’t make him unattractive, whatever you did.”
His smile and his habits of speech made the deepest impressions. His smile was massive and winning, with none of the lock-jawed frigidity of upper-crust stereotype. It was an expression that “quiver[ed] with animation,” shifting from delight to surprise to warmth in the space of seconds. His tenor voice and superb enunciation identified him instantly as a man of American society’s highest echelon, though in his refined accent some also heard a hint of the remote coastal villages of Maine where, as a privileged boy fascinated by the sea, he had made friends among fishing-boat captains.
When introduced, he seemed merely to fit “all the categories of the Good Fellow,” as a writer would put it later. “He was a backslapper, a mixer, . . . and all the rest of it—the kind of undergraduate who would, and did, make a fine permanent chairman of his class committee.” But his charm far exceeded ordinary good fellowship. He seemed perfectly delighted to be who he was and equally delighted to bring everyone else in on the sheer fun of being Franklin D. Roosevelt. You knew immediately you were dealing not with an ordinary person but with a personage—a presence larger than others and more alive, as if surrounded by a sparkling aura. He regarded himself as someone who ought to be recognized and reckoned with. Even as a young boy he had signed letters to his parents with his initials: “FDR.”
In his early adulthood, that quality had struck many people as sheer arrogance. As a rookie state senator, barely out of his twenties, he affected an air of such upright gentility that he reminded veteran pols of a snooty young Episcopalian clergyman. If they asked him to compromise, he would toss up his chin and say: “No! No! I won’t hear of it!”
But ten years in politics had sanded off the haughty shell. The personality he displayed now was all but irresistible. The word “charm” invariably came up in conversations about him. But it was a strange admixture of forces. There was supreme self-confidence, as if no one could possibly doubt his sincerity, goodwill, and ability. Yet there was also an extraordinary determination to please, as if he were driven by an inner demon that would not quit until he was liked and admired. One who did admire him referred to “the amiably insistent force of his personality.” After a while in his presence, some got tired of it.
He seemed supernaturally capable of tuning to the frequency of other people. His wife later said he was always “particularly susceptible to people,” so he “took color from whomever he was with, giving to each one something different of himself.” Among bookish people he would display his knowledge of American history, while among natural scientists he could recount experiences in ornithology and forestry. “He was fantastically sensitive to people around him,” said a woman friend who had known him for many years. “Almost like a compass needle he would turn to people. . . . Like a chameleon he changed colors with the person he was talking with.” Anyone meeting him would encounter “a big friendly smile,” an observer reported, “and the glint of intense interest in his sparkling eyes.” He would encourage his new friend with “little laughs, and goads, and urgings such as ‘Really? Tell me more!’ . . . ‘Well, what do you know!’ . . . ‘Same thing’s happened to me dozens of times!’ . . . ‘Oh, that’s fascinating.’ ” If you liked him, this treatment indicated a genuine and winning sensitivity to your ideas and desires. If you weren’t so sure about him, the effect was more like that of a well-performed show, a deliberate exhibition of traits calculated to gain favor.
He had developed these skills as a child—an only child—with adults, especially women, but not so much with peers. As a young boy he had taken his schooling from tutors in his home. Then, when he was thirteen, the age at which other boys of his social class were leaving home for prep school, his mother held him close for another year. So he started at Groton School outside Boston when his classmates already had endured their first-year trials together, and after this late start he never caught on with the popular crowd. At Harvard he remained outside the “in” groups. His deepest ambition in college was to be chosen for Porcellian, the most exclusive of the social clubs, but he was anonymously blackballed—a slight that a relative thought was “the bitterest moment of Franklin Roosevelt’s life”—and one of the complaints about him at Harvard was simply that he tried too hard to be liked.
He was still doing so, though he was better at it. Never quite “one of the boys” in his youth, he seized every chance to be one of the boys now.
This afternoon, for instance, aboard the yacht Pocantico, he was plunging headlong into fraternal revelry. With Prohibition dominating the headlines, the men aboard were staging a well-lubricated mock trial of Richard Enright, New York’s commissioner of police, who had been comically “caught” transporting a suspicious-looking walking stick that turned out to contain a prohibited “amber liquid.” FDR took the role of the outraged prosecutor, roaring with mock alarm, playing the part to the hilt.
The men laughing along with this burlesque came from two spheres of power. The first was Roosevelt’s native sphere. These were men of Wall Street and Park Avenue, born to wealth and influence, such as William M. Chadbourne, Harvard ’00, one of Manhattan’s leading corporate lawyers. The other sort included self-made scramblers like Police Commissioner Enright, the first New York cop to work his way all the way to the department’s top post, thanks to the friendship of Mayor John Francis (“Red Mike”) Hylan, a brawler in the wars of Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic machine.
Roosevelt had embarked on his political career as a young man wholly of the first sphere. Now, in 1921, he had one foot planted in the second sphere of power. He had made many friends among politicians and promoters of lesser social rank but greater political wisdom. To his long head start in life he had added their techniques and tools. He knew now how to hustle and maneuver, how to plan and plot without divulging his intentions, how to give and withhold.
But he kept that bag of tricks hidden under the polished veneer of the old families and the Ivy League. Upon meeting him for the first time, people beheld simply—as Josephus Daniels, his chief at the Navy Department, once put it—“as handsome a figure of an attractive young man as I had ever seen.” He exhibited all the qualities of a prize show horse. It was sheer pleasure to be in his company. He had every advantage that family, money, good schooling, and good luck could provide, and ever since the mild social hardships of Groton and Harvard, his connections had brought him positions of prestige and power. His mother had gotten him his first job in a Wall Street law firm. The power brokers of his home county in upstate New York had invited him to enter state politics. He had been named to Woodrow Wilson’s subcabinet at the age of thirty-one without even asking for the job. He had won the nomination for vice president without raising a finger for it. The odds had always favored him.
• • •
The poliovirus was at hand. It always had been at hand, circulating anywhere human beings lived together. In recent times it had become more dangerous. But the new danger lay in the humans, not in the virus.
When Franklin Roosevelt was growing up in the 1880s, hardly anyone even knew that of all the lame children in the world, a scattered few had been crippled by an infectious microorganism. Their number was inconsequential compared to the throngs of children brought down by the far more dangerous microorganisms that caused scarlet fever, yellow fever, typhoid fever, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and diphtheria. The poliovirus could kill and maim. But for most of its history it seldom did so.
The reason seems paradoxical. Until the twentieth century, the poliovirus had caused so little harm because it had been so common in the human community.
The poliovirus passes from person to person via specks of human waste, and before the coming of modern sanitation in the late 1800s, specks of waste were practically as common as dust. In a nineteenth-century metropolis such as New York, for example, the soaring population overloaded leaky privies, the contents of which often drained into the water supply. The pits beneath the privies were supposed to be cleaned out regularly, their contents hauled away by “night soil” men and dumped in the rivers. But this makeshift system left plenty of fecal matter in haphazard circulation. The existence of infectious microorganisms—germs—was essentially unknown, so hand washing was not the habitual practice it would become in the twentieth century. Only the wealthy had running water inside their homes. Everyone else had to haul whatever water they needed, which meant there was little to be spared for cleaning. In many households laundry was done infrequently and indifferently, usually with dirty water, and daily bathing was a luxury few could afford. From hand to hand, hand to food, and hand to mouth, specks and smears of feces were heedlessly passed around on every street and in every home. The poliovirus rode along.
To propagate, it needed to get inside people. Naturally, it found most of its hosts among infants and young children, the sloppiest members of the human tribe. Only a rare child grew up without ingesting the poliovirus. It moved from child to child, as the medical historian John R. Paul put it, “almost in the same manner that air rushes into a vacuum or water seeks its own level.”
But the vast majority escaped serious illness. Their immune systems saved them. A child infected in infancy would likely be protected by antibodies passed through the placenta from his mother. If infected later in childhood, other agents in the immune system were likely to keep him safe.
Whenever a tiny intruder enters the human body—a grain of pollen sniffed up the nose, a bacterium or virus that goes down the throat, a sliver poking into the skin—immune cells rush to the scene. First come the cells called phages, from the Greek root “to eat.” They are blunt weapons that recognize only one distinction among the objects they encounter—the distinction between “self” and “nonself.” Anything they find that is “nonself,” they consume and destroy. But some bits of “nonself” survive this defense.
The next line of cellular defenders, the lymphocytes, are slower to react but more sophisticated. They enjoy a marvelous ability to adapt to specific intruders. Locking with a poliovirus, for example, the lymphocyte will clone itself over and over again, creating a legion of new, specialized cells whose sole function is to lock with any new poliovirus and destroy it. These cells remain in the human system for good. They guard against any new infection. They immunize the host.
So went the quiet career of the poliovirus in the era of ubiquitous human waste. A viral particle surviving outside the body in its fecal vessel would inevitably wind up in the mouth of nearly every baby. It would multiply in the child’s intestine. But the immune system would suppress any severe infection and generate lymphocytes to immunize the child against all future infections. Copies of the virus would be shed in the child’s feces and get into other children. But most of them, too, would shed the virus with no harm done. And here another benefit emerged.
In the feces of an infected child, there would be intact, or “live,” copies of the poliovirus as well as copies destroyed by the immune system. Yet these “killed” copies, as they are called, if they entered a human host, would provoke the defensive reaction of lymphocytes just as a healthy virus would. The “killed” virus could not make a person sick. But it could stimulate a lifelong immunity. The poliovirus spread through sewage. But—incredibly—so did immunity to the poliovirus.
A few developed poliomyelitis, but only a few.
Then came the American Civil War and a tidal wave of death by disease—far more deaths than were caused by cannonballs and bullets. This prompted calls for a revolution in sanitation. The germ theory of disease was not yet widely accepted. Diseases were generally understood to be the result of accumulated filth and the “miasmas,” or smelly clouds, that filth produced. So the obvious remedy was cleanliness, both in the management of daily life and in the running of cities and towns. When cleanliness crusades were seen to work against certain diseases, more and more cities and towns took on the expense of installing sewer systems. By the 1880s and 1890s, many American communities had toilets to flush, and as the germ theory of disease became well known, many Americans were keeping themselves cleaner.
With this, the situation of the polivirus began to change. In one community after another, as privies and cesspools gave way to flush toilets and underground pipes that whisked feces away to be decontaminated, the poliovirus became less common, in both its “live” and its “killed” state. More and more children reached school age without encountering it. So they never developed the lymphocytes that would protect them against it. Gradually, here and there in Europe and North America—and often in the most sanitary communities—clusters of children grew up without the usual cadre of defenses against the poliovirus. Sanitation in these places had not extinguished the virus but merely excluded it. If the virus got loose here, among people lacking the usual immunities, it would be far more dangerous than before.
• • •
These facts about the poliovirus were unknown even to the best doctors practicing during Franklin Roosevelt’s boyhood in the 1880s. By 1921, scientists had discovered that poliomyelitis was caused by a contagious virus. But how the virus was transmitted from person to person remained a mystery.
Thanks mostly to medical pioneers such as Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, doctors now accepted the germ theory of disease. But in many cases they knew little about how a particular microorganism passed from one person to another. They didn’t know, for instance, whether the poliovirus was transmitted by droplets from a sneeze or from hand to hand. They didn’t know if it was carried by insects or by tainted food or water. They didn’t know if a germ could survive on a tabletop and they didn’t know why an epidemic arose in one town but not in another.
So in 1893, doctors in and around Boston were at a loss to explain twenty-six cases of paralytic poliomyelitis—several times the number they had seen in any previous year. The following summer, the town of Rutland, Vermont, saw 132 cases—a genuine epidemic in that small town—and most of the victims were not babies but older children. The disease had become known as “infantile paralysis” because so many of the victims had indeed been infants. But in Rutland, a number of adults were struck as well. Year after year, more outbreaks occurred, but the numbers remained insignificant compared to the great killers.
Then, in the summer of 1916, the disease struck with bewildering force. Some 27,000 Americans were diagnosed. More than 6,000 died; many more were paralyzed. The epidemic was worst in New York City, where more than 9,000 were paralyzed, including large numbers of babies. Frightened parents rushed their children out of the city. Public health officials imposed quarantines. But none of these measures seemed to do any good. Health officials could give parents only commonsense advice about protecting their children: prevent overfatigue; keep them away from large gatherings and from persons with colds, since it was possible the infecting agent was expelled from the nose or throat in coughs and sneezes; avoid ice cream parlors, soda fountains, and restaurants suspected of uncleanliness; keep children’s fingers out of their noses; keep them away from dust raised by the sweeping of streets, sidewalks, and homes; swat flies. How any parent could hope to do all this was a perplexity. The result was rampant anxiety.
In the summers of 1917, 1918, 1919, and 1920, outbreaks were smaller and more isolated. Influenza was a much greater danger in those years, and the fear of infantile paralysis faded. But doctors could no more explain why “the infantile” had receded than they could explain why it had attacked so brutally in 1916.
Now, in 1921, the disease’s summer season was beginning again.
New York’s first cases were reported in the last week of July in upstate Utica. Then several children were struck in Westchester County, just north of New York City. Three cases, all children, were reported in nearby Paterson, New Jersey.
The numbers were small. Public health officials saw no need to fear a recurrence of 1916; and even if they had, they would not have known how to prevent it.
• • •
Epidemiology and history are nowhere near precise enough to trace the exact events that led to Franklin Roosevelt’s infection. But one can map the most likely possibilities.
One of the stronger possibilities is that somewhere in New York or northern New Jersey, in late June or early July, the poliovirus entered a particular boy who was bound for the Boy Scout campsites at Bear Mountain. Down in his small intestine, the virus was snagged by a crooked projection that protruded like a tiny tree branch from the wall of an intestinal cell. Virus and cell interlocked. Then the virus penetrated the cell wall and began to make copies of itself.
Over the next few days, the boy may or may not have felt ill. If he did, it was probably no more than a slight stomachache or headache, and certainly not severe enough to make him tell his mother. He would not have wanted to miss that trip up the Hudson River.
That was one possible source of infection—a Boy Scout infected at home.
Another possible source was associated with the terrain of Bear Mountain itself. The park sits in the Hudson Highlands, the rumpled ridge that shoulders up to the river between New York City and West Point. The mountain and the lands nearby had become a public preserve by the generosity of Mary Averell Harriman, widow of the banking and railroad magnate E. H. Harriman. As a boy in the 1850s, E. H. Harriman had often hiked through the woods of the Highlands. In 1885 he purchased a chunk of forest southwest of Bear Mountain to protect the land from encroachment by lumber and mining interests, and he built a summer home there. Over the years he added more tracts to the original to create one of the great natural preserves in the northeastern United States. After Harriman’s death in 1909, Mrs. Harriman arranged to give thousands of acres to the state as a woodland retreat for New York’s millions, provided the state give up its plan to move the Sing Sing penitentiary to Bear Mountain and instead make that property a public park as well. So these sprawling tracts of forest became the first of America’s great state parks—two adjoining parks, actually: Bear Mountain State Park along the western shore of the Hudson; and Harriman State Park, in the rolling woodlands southwest of the mountain.
In the 1910s, construction crews swarmed through the woods, damming streams to make lakes and building pavilions, campgrounds, docks, icehouses, and a network of roads and trails.
Then crowds of New Yorkers came, and by 1920 the park’s boosters were calling it “the greatest playground in the world,” with more visitors annually than all the national parks combined. It had been conceived as a place of escape from the city, but in fact, on the busiest days of July and August, the whole city seemed to have come to the park. Catching the Hudson Day Line steamer in Manhattan for a trip to Bear Mountain was a highlight of the season for thousands of New York families. Many visitors were sponsored by settlement houses and philanthropists in the belief that fresh air and rustic pleasures were good medicine for the poor and their children—delinquent children, crippled children, working boys and girls, orphans. Then there were the Boy Scouts, who came in packs of roughly two thousand at a time, with a staff of fifty, each group staying for two weeks at a string of sixteen permanent campsites built around three lovely man-made lakes—Upper, Middle, and Lower Kanawauke Lakes. So on any given day of the summer, the population of a fair-sized city was hiking the trails, roaming the woods, eating lunches out of picnic hampers, wading in the streams, and swimming in the lakes and ponds.
This was the Harrimans’ dream come true. But the park’s popularity came too quickly. Almost no one knew it, but by 1920 the water at Bear Mountain was dangerous.
In the fall of that year, at the request of New York’s Public Health Council, the state Department of Health sent its water-quality expert, Earl Devendorf, a civil engineer, to make an inspection of sanitary conditions throughout the park. After a thorough survey, Devendorf concluded that the human invasion of the Bear Mountain and Harriman forests had outpaced the authorities’ ability to keep the park’s drinking water clean. At some bathing beaches and campsites, he reported, chemical toilets had been installed, but there were not enough of them, and waste was being disposed of improperly. At many sites the pit privies were “in an insanitary condition.” The danger of contamination was not confined to the campsites. Down in the ground below the Highlands, spurts and sheets of molten lava had long ago penetrated the ancient beds of granite. The native granite and the lava now formed something like a petrified sandwich of many layers, shot through with cracks and fissures. Through these long, wandering cracks, groundwater could move for miles. No one really knew where a bucket of water drawn at the Boy Scout camps had come from. For this reason, Devendorf said, all those springs and wells were to be “viewed with suspicion.” As the engineer pointed out, “With the very large summer population, consisting mainly of young boys and girls and numbering at times over 75,000 which roam promiscuously over the entire park area, any supply derived from a stream, pond or spring is subject to the accidental, incidental or chance pollution from such a population.” In plainer words, children playing outdoors in the summertime are apt to shit in the woods. And, as Devendorf said, “the probability of [disease] carriers being present in such a large population is very great.”
In fact, Devendorf had discovered that nearly every spring and well in the camping region of the park contained specimens of coliform bacteria. This indicated the presence of unfiltered human waste in the water. So the poliovirus was in the water too.
• • •
It was late afternoon when Pocantico deposited its passengers at the Bear Mountain docks. Buses carried them around the mountain and down Seven Lakes Road through “keen country,” as a brochure described it; it was “wild, big, away from everywhere, with inspiring heights.” At the camps, under old stands of oak, ash, and hemlock, Roosevelt and his party found 2,100 boys: 1,200 of them from New York, the rest from New Jersey.
Boys and men convened at the mess hall for what the newspapers called “a regular old-fashioned southern chicken dinner.” Franklin Roosevelt was chosen as toastmaster. With four sons at home under the age of fourteen, he had no trouble making a bunch of boys laugh. His yearning to charm an audience, whether a crowd of a thousand or a single soul he had just met, was inexhaustible.
He was always quick to shake hands.
• • •
Like a seed, the virus had come into being as one of millions, nearly all of which would miss their marks, fall apart, and blow away. Survival of the line depended on just one finding a host cell and beginning anew the process of re-creation.
If the virus came by water—that is, from one of the tainted wells or ponds somewhere in the park—it was now at the campsite. Perhaps it was suspended in a bucket of water or a pitcher of lemonade. It might have been floating in a basin where the forks were soaked after dinner; then the forks were gathered quickly and placed on a picnic table next to pieces of pie set out for dessert.
Or the virus may have stuck to the finger of the infected boy from New York or New Jersey. Maybe he had run from the privy to the mess tent without washing his hands. Maybe he had picked up an apple from a bowl or a piece of fried chicken from a platter and then, when a friend called him away, put the apple or the piece of chicken back. Perhaps he had run up to greet the famous man.
Whether it came by the water or the boy or by some other unknowable route, the virus was now directly at hand. From the tainted cup or the dirty fork, or from the boy’s hand to Roosevelt’s hand, from the red surface of the apple or the crispy skin of the chicken, from Roosevelt’s hand to his tongue, the virus passed into Roosevelt’s mouth. He swallowed.
Meet the Author
James Tobin won the National Book Critics Circle Award in biography for Ernie Pyle’s War and the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award for To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Educated at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in history, he teaches narrative nonfiction in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University in Oxford, OH.
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