Franklin D. Roosevelt
contracted polio in 1921
, when he was thirty-nine; the disease paralyzed his legs. Roosevelt was not willing to accept this easily; he spent years trying anything that might help him walk again or at least increase his strength. In 1924
, he heard that some polio victims had been helped by bathing in hot springs. He visited Warm Springs
, and received some comfort from the hot water
, if not any increase in strength. Other paralyzed survivors of the disease followed him, and Roosevelt taught the new people the exercises he used. Other guests at the resort were squeamish about being around so many handicapped
people, so Roosevelt bought the entire complex and with a law partner drew up the Warm Springs Foundation, a non-profit
organization to allow those who needed it to use the springs.
Almost a decade later, Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, but the Great Depression had hit the foundation hard financially. A trustee suggested celebrating the President's birthday with charity balls in multiple locations. The President's Birthday Ball Commission for Infantile Paralysis (as polio was then called, though obviously from Roosevelt's case it was not just an infantile disease) was born. Four years later, it became the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, so that Roosevelt's controversial policies would not hurt the foundation. But Roosevelt's association with this foundation assured that after his death, the coin chosen to bear his likeness would have to the Roosevelt dime.
In addition to the charity balls, the organization wanted to raise money from everyday people. Well-known singer Eddie Cantor suggested that famous people do appeals on the radio asking people to send in dimes directly to the White House; he was the one who came up with the "March of Dimes" name for the campaign, which would later become part of the official organization name. On the first day after the broadcasts, the White House got 30,000 letters; 50,000 the next day; 150,000 the third. $260,000 in just dimes was collected for that campaign.
The money was to serve two major purposes: research and care for polio sufferers. The NFIP paid hospital and medical bills for anyone who could not afford them, which ended up being about 85% of American polio cases. The foundation also coordinated movement of patients, personnel, and equipment from place to place. This ended up taking a much larger portion of the money raised than did research. The organization rarely had trouble finding volunteers to work in fund-raising; even Richard M. Nixon, then Vice-President, wiped windshields at a service station to kick off 1955's campaign. But costs really mounted by the mid-1950s, especially after the Jonas Salk polio vaccine was announced in 1953 and people forgot about the need to care for those already stricken (or infected before they could be vaccinated).
The vaccine caused a major drop in U.S. cases by 1957. The NFIP announced that it would not dissolve, but that the March of Dimes would switch to fund-raising for some other cause. In 1958, that cause became the prevention of birth defects. They continued to fund some polio research, including Albert Sabin's oral vaccine, but their new focus helped develop tests for PKU, do bone marrow transplants to correct birth defects, research the effects of alcohol on fetal development, and fund several experimental surgeries to correct birth defects in utero.
They also fund major education campaigns, including the one that started in 1994 to encourage women to take folic acid for the health of their babies. They have also done a lot of work with gene therapy, and lobbied for U.S. laws guaranteeing minimum hospital stays for mothers and their newborns and other legislation related to children's health. Their site proudly announces that ten March of Dimes-funded scientists have won Nobel Prizes.
Black, Kathryn. In The Shadow of Polio: A Personal and Social History. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1996.
Various documents on http://www.modimes.org