FDR surrounded by a group of children and adults, some supporting themselves with crutches.

FDR pays a visit to The Pines: West VA Foundation for Crippled Children, at Berkeley Springs, WV, May 12, 1935. Photo courtesy FDR Presidential Library and Museum.

Poliomyelitis, commonly known as Polio or Infantile Paralysis, is a virus that attacks the central nervous system. Historians believe polio has been in existence for thousands of years. Although polio has a long history, the earliest written medical description of the virus was not recorded until 1789, when Michael Underwood M.D. in England, described patients who typically had a fever accompanied with a “debility of the lower extremities,” or paralysis of the lower body. The fever and paralysis have continued to be the most well-known symptoms of the virus.

The United States experienced its first Polio epidemic in Vermont in 1894. The disease ultimately became a nationwide health crisis with further outbreaks in 1916 and 1949. Between outbreaks the number of cases would rise and fall with numbers being higher during the summer and lower during the winter. In 1916 there were 27,363 cases of paralytic polio and 7,130 polio related deaths. The number of cases dropped substantially in 1917, and the U.S. would not see such high rates of infection again until 1948. Children were most impacted by polio. Between 1949 and 1954, children made up sixty-five percent of polio cases.

Despite the number of cases fluctuating from year to year, the threat of polio outbreaks heavily impacted communities. In attempt to reduce infection rates, these outbreaks would result in the closure of swimming pools, movie theatres, other public gathering places, and even schools.

The symptoms of the polio infection were like those of the flu—sore throat, fever, tiredness, nausea, headache, and stomach pain were common. In most cases people were asymptomatic. The difficulty of distinguishing polio symptoms from the flu, and the existence of asymptomatic carriers, were factors that lead to unknowingly spreading the virus. Humans usually contract polio when exposed to contaminated food and water.

There are three types of polio—abortive polio (or minor cases of polio), non-paralytic polio, and paralytic polio. The well-known paralysis of paralytic polio occurred in about one percent of cases. Paralysis occurs when the virus destroys motor neurons in the central nervous system. In most cases of paralytic polio, the afflicted person did not end permanently paralyzed. Over time many patients would regain some, if not all, mobility in their affected limbs. In extreme cases of paralytic polio, the paralysis caused respiratory collapse—a weakening of the chest muscles. In these cases, a patient was placed in a cylinder-shaped device called the Iron Lung, invented by Philip Drinker in 1928. Negative pressure inside the Iron Lung expanded the patient’s lungs and helped keep them breathing, providing the body an opportunity to rest and repair itself.

Graphic image of hand holding a test tube. Words printed on poster state "Polio Research, A Light is Beginning to Dawn."

"Polio research a light is beginning to dawn" poster by Herbert Bayer for National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, 1949. Library of Congress.

A key development in the fight against polio occurred when Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became permanently paralyzed by polio in 1921, established the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938 to fund research for a vaccine. But Roosevelt would not see the vaccine in his lifetime. Doctors Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin developed the polio vaccine in 1955 and 1961 respectively. The use of the polio vaccine has greatly decreased the number of polio cases globally, including the eradication of multiple strains of polio. By 1979, the poliovirus was declared eliminated in the United States. The turning point of the global war against polio occurred in 1988 with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative after the epidemic was successfully controlled in the Western Hemisphere. The initiative launched a global effort to immunize children throughout the world. Today, polio is endemic only in Africa and the Middle East. And while polio has been until recently only a bleak memory in the United States, the polio virus has resurfaced with a 2022 confirmed case in New York. Yet because of aggressive immunization campaigns world-wide, polio is a proven preventable disease that can only circulate and evolve among large pockets of unvaccinated people.

—Alice Creviston


Underwood, Michael. “Debility of the Lower Extremities.” Essay. In A Treatise on the Diseases of Children, with General Directions for the Management of Infants from the Birth 2, Fourth., 2:89. London: J. Matthews, 1789.

Ochmann, Sophie, and Max Roser, “Polio.” Our World Data. November 9, 2017.

Smithsonian Institution. (n.d.). Whatever Happened to Polio. National Museum of American History Behring Center. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from

“What Is Polio?” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, October 24, 2019.

Home Of Franklin D Roosevelt National Historic Site

Last updated: August 25, 2022