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Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR): Polio

FDR's encountered his biggest hurdle in the summer of 1921. After swimming in the waters near his family's home in Maine, he contracted a crippling disease that left him paralyzed from the waist down. At the time, his physicians thought the disease was polio. More recently, doctors who have re-examined his medical records have suggested that Roosevelt's affliction might have been another disease, Guillian-Barré syndrome.18

Whatever the disease actually was, news of Roosevelt's paralysis made the front page of the New York Times and nearly ended his political career. FDR was eventually able to convince the public that he had made a full recovery. He hadn't, and for the rest of his life he used a cane and metal braces to stand and walk short distances. When he was not in public, he moved around in a wheelchair.

In 1924, after trying a variety of polio remedies, FDR visited the mineral waters at Warm Springs, Georgia. He was so impressed by their healing effects that he later purchased a resort there, establishing a recovery hospital for polio victims. While convalescing in rural Georgia, Roosevelt was also exposed to a side of American life he was largely unfamiliar with. Taking advantage of new technology, Roosevelt had a Model T converted so that he could drive it with hand controls, then used the car to zip around the rural countryside. Gregarious as ever, he met and talked to local farmers and blue-collar workers. Through his conversations, he learned about the effects that drought and falling crop prices had on peoples' lives. He also learned what it meant to be without electricity, running water, adequate clothing or education.19 Roosevelt's time in Georgia, as much as anything else in his life, may have helped him understand what it meant to live without, and to envision a government that could play a more supportive role in ordinary peoples' lives.

Although FDR never regained use of his legs, he regained most of his ability to move the rest of his body. And in 1929—after sitting out most of what had been a horrible decade for Democratic politicians due to his disease—he continued on the path he'd laid out 22 years earlier by becoming the 44th Governor of New York. Then, after only three years in that office, he announced his candidacy for his final goal: President of the United States.

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