As a man in his late thirties President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was afflicted with a bout of polio which left him unable to walk. While serving as President of the United States, the only President to serve four terms starting the March of Dimes in the hopes of finding a cure for polio. In 1962 the Sabin vaccine for polio was licensed and the rest is history. Over the last 75 years the March of Dimes has gone from finding a cure for polio to newborn screening programs to folic acid education programs and more.
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s grandson, James Roosevelt, Jr. and March of Dimes President, Jennifer Howse joined me on FDR’s 131st birthday this week to discuss how the March of Dimes was started, the Roosevelt family’s continuous work with the March of Dimes, President Roosevelt’s legacy, what the March of Dimes hopes to accomplish in the next 75 years, and how you can help assure children’s health for the future.
Candace Rose: James, with today being your grandfather, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 131st birthday, and the March of Dimes celebrating its 75th anniversary, can you tell us about your grandfather and how he started the March of Dimes?
James Roosevelt, Jr.: “My grandfather, Franklin D. Roosevelt was stricken with polio himself at the age of 39 and from that point on he never walked again, and yet he came back from that to be elected Governor of New York and then four times President of the United States. He showed that with a spirit of determination and an optimistic attitude you could accomplish what you needed to accomplish. But he thought that it was really important that we as a country take on this great scourge of polio. In 1938 as we were coming out of the Great Depression he asked people all over the country, particularly kids, but everybody to send their dimes to the White House to start the March of Dimes to start research to find a vaccine to stop polio. That was overwhelmingly successful Sabin vaccines so that when I was a kid, I remember first my friends coming down with polio and my mother telling me ‘You can’t go to the swimming pool or the movie theater because people are catching polio.’ And then all of a sudden with the vaccine it was over, and gradually that’s happened throughout the rest of the world in all but three countries. It shows you what enthusiasm and determination of volunteers with their activity and their contributions can accomplish. And that’s what the March of Dimes is about today for healthy babies and fighting prematurity.”
Candace Rose: How has the March of Dimes been a part of your family and the legacy?
James Roosevelt, Jr.: “Well, my family has stayed involved. It wasn’t just my grandfather, my dad, James Roosevelt chaired the 50th anniversary of the March of Dimes and my sister, Anne Roosevelt is chairing this 75th anniversary. And then the next generation, my niece, Liz Roosevelt Johnston is on the board of trustees as a volunteer for the March of Dimes nationally. So we’ve all stayed involved in participating in the events all around the country.”
Candace Rose: How does the March of Dimes continue the FDR legacy today?
James Roosevelt, Jr.: “So today, and Dr. Howse can speak to this in more detail, the March of Dimes has great support for research. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know as I’ve participated in March of Dimes events, some of the researchers and some of the families and children who’ve been helped.”
Dr. Jennifer L. Howse: I think the very important legacy of Franklin Roosevelt of bringing science in service to people. He was very keen that science be translated into interventions that made a difference in people’s lives. That was his vision when he started and the quest for the polio vaccine. And that vision has continued with March of Dimes with newborn screening programs that we’ve been responsible for establishing in every state, folic acid education programs and fortification to reduce rates of spina bifida and now the prematurity prevention campaign which we’ve been working for 10 years. We’ve gotten some early positive results, fewer babies born preterm in our country, but still a great deal of work to do. The legacy of children’s health envisioned by President Roosevelt continues to this day and will move forward into the future.”
Candace Rose: Dr. Howse, what does the March of Dimes hope to accomplish in the next 75 years?
Dr. Jennifer L. Howse: “Well, I think we will continue to put science and service to improving children’s health. There are still many problems to confronting our children, our newborns. Also, the March of Dimes is a global organization now. We’re working in many countries across the world and there’s a great deal to be done. So a lot of progress, the road ahead is long, our volunteers are dedicated and that’s why we ask for support every year, particularly in our major fundraising event, the March for Babies and that’s coming up at the end of April, 800 programs across the country. And we raise over $100 million a year from that event so we would just ask people to get involved: MarchForBabies.org website and learn more about the event and find out what you can do to assure children’s health today and tomorrow.”
Candace Rose: Do either of you have any additional information you’d like to share with us?
James Roosevelt, Jr.: “Well, I would just ask, that this is not something to stand by and watch; this is something for people to really get involved in. Kids are doing things even today around the country- raising dimes and putting them in $5 wrappers and sending them in to the March of Dimes. But the real way that people can get involved is to right now go on that website MarchForBabies.org and sign up for the walk. There’s 800 events all over the country, so people don’t have to go far, they can participate locally and have this great effect nationally and worldwide.”