On January 3, 1938, the March of Dimes was founded. You and I may be walking, or even alive because of it. Founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was originally called the “National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.” President Roosevelt himself suffered from Infantile Paralysis, more commonly known as polio. He was first diagnosed in 1921 at the age of 39, but few Americans realized the extent of his illness until after his death. Polio first appeared around 1900 with little rhyme or reason. During the great depression, the number of people who suffered from polio continued to grow. Polio cases would rise in the summer as the dreaded disease would be transmitted in swimming pools, lakes, etc. It would mysteriously appear in one area for a summer, and then a completely different area the next. As soon as one child showed any symptoms resembling polio, an entire community would panic. Throughout the 1930’s, there was an average of 40,000 new cases each year in the United States. This astonishing rate continued into the 1940’s and 50’s, with the worst year being 1952 as over 60,000 cases were reported. There was no cure and no vaccine. Every child was a potential victim.
The “National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis” had one goal in mind; to develop a vaccine for polio. President Roosevelt was firm in his stance that they would do this by raising money and awarding grants to the best medical researchers in the field regardless of age, race, gender or religion. In the weeks after it’s founding, the name of the organization was changed to “March of Dimes”, a phrase coined by radio and film star, Eddie Cantor. The idea was that during the depression, people could afford very little to donate to the cause, but if everyone could simply donate a dime, the research could be jump started.
Photo Credit: Time Magazine
Thousands and thousands of people began sending in their dimes. During a radio address on his birthday, January 30, 1938, Roosevelt told the nation:
“During the past few days bags of mail have been coming, literally by the truck load, to the White House, yesterday between forty and fifty thousand letters came to the mail room of the White House. Today an even greater number — how many I cannot tell you — for we can only estimate the actual count by counting the mail bags. In all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills — gifts from grown-ups and children — mostly from children who want to help other children get well. … It is glorious to have one’s birthday associated with a work like this.”
Photo credit: The March of Dimes
Over the next decade, over a half a billion dollars would be raised in the war on polio. One of the researchers supported by funding from the March of Dimes was the head of the research laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Joseph Salk. In 1950, Salk developed an early version of a vaccine for polio. In 1954, the vaccine was administered to two million children nationwide. By 1957, the number of cases dropped to 6000 in the United States. Today, there are only a handful of Polio Cases in the United States each year. A fearsome disease had been put to rest by the sustained efforts of millions of volunteers, coordinated by the March of Dimes.
In the years after the victory over polio, the March of Dimes has continued to be a driving force behind the battle for disease prevention and cures. Each year, the March of Dimes gives over $100 million in grants to researchers and Doctors around the globe, with a special emphasis on childhood diseases. The March of Dimes has also led the fight for healthier pregnancies and babies worldwide. There is a very good chance that you or someone you love has directly benefitted from the March of Dimes.
Happy birthday to the March of Dimes, a real treasure for America and the world!
P.S.- The March of Dimes is the reason that President Roosevelt is pictured on the dime. After his 1945 death, Congress voted to honor him the next year on newly minted dimes because of his founding of the March of Dimes and the war on polio. The Roosevelt dime as we know it today was first released on what would have been Roosevelt’s 64th birthday, January 30, 1946.
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