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Was Franklin D Roosevelt a Polio Survivor, and does posthumous questioning of the diagnosis dehumanise the man himself?

Posted on October 28, 2014 at 8:30 AM Comments comments (0)

I've just been reading one of the many Wikipedia entries about Roosevelt. This one, entitled "Franklin D. Roosevelt's paralytic illness" casts doubt about whether the president actually had Polio, or whether he may instead have had Guillain–Barré Syndrome, a very rare neurological disorder that also causes paralysis.


This theory was put forward by five medical researchers at the University of Texas in 2003. They used statistical techniques to correlate the various symptoms observed during the early onset of the illness (some of which are common between both illnesses and some which are unique to one or other of them) with the annual number of reported cases of both illnesses in 1921. Of course, to classify the symptoms they had to rely on eighty year old physicians' notes that needed contemporary interpretation, and could no longer be clarified, since both the note writers and the patient were long dead. They came to the conclusion that " six of eight posterior probabilities favoured a diagnosis of Guillain–Barré syndrome." I am not a statistician, but I think that in layman's terms this means that they were 75% confident that he had Guillain-Barre and only 25% confident that he had Polio.


What these researchers did may be a valid form of medical research, but I can't help thinking that postulating such a theory diminishes the humanity of the man himself. The important facts to me are:


• Roosevelt was told he had Polio and thought of himself as a Polio survivor.


• He went on to found "The March of Dimes" Foundation in 1938. This became, by a wide margin, the largest charity in American history. From 1938 through the development of the Salk vaccine in 1955, the foundation spent $233 million on polio patient care, which led to more than 80 percent of U.S. polio patients' receiving significant foundation aid. It is still active today, funding research and treatment for a wide variety of childhood illnesses and birth defects.


The March of Dimes is an important part of Roosevelt's legacy, and would never have existed in its present form had he not been diagnosed with Polio. To posthumously diagnose the man with another disease is to treat him as merely as a medical case and to ignore his humanity.