Franklin D. Roosevelt - Disability and deception


Smiling FDR seated in a wheelchair with a dog in his lap and a young girl at his side

While on a vacation in Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Franklin Roosevelt was taken ill. At first he thought he had a cold, but within days, his legs became numb, leaving him unable to walk. Roosevelt was to consult William Keen, who had earlier operated on Grover Cleveland and examined Woodrow Wilson. Keen first thought Roosevelt’s condition was spinal thrombosis, and then suggested inflammation of the spinal cord. Another doctor, Robert Lovett, finally diagnosed polio. His promising political career, which had already included service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the 1920 vice presidential candidate of the Democrats, seemed over.

However, Roosevelt aide Louis Howe still believed Roosevelt had a future. Roosevelt himself kept interested in national affairs while pursuing business opportunities and developing a polio treatment center in Warm Springs, Georgia. Kenneth Crispell and Carlos Gomez note that his efforts at Warm Springs had quite an effect. “(T)ownspeople came to address him as ‘Doctor Roosevelt’, while Roosevelt came to see himself as quite an expert on the disease.” (P. 90)

Roosevelt’s return to politics came in 1924. Usually confined to a wheelchair, with the aid of braces, crutches, and the steady arm of one of his sons, Roosevelt could simulate walking. He designed a wheelchair from a kitchen chair that was smaller in size than standard models of that era. By 1924, Roosevelt was able to stand at the lectern of the Democratic National Convention to place New York governor Al Smith’s name in nomination for the presidency.

Four years later, Roosevelt himself was running for governor of the state. He waged a vigorous campaign and despite a Republican presidential victory, Roosevelt became won his race. Two years later, he was re-elected and was a front-runner for the presidential nomination in 1932.

There was a whispering campaign that Roosevelt was not physically fit for the presidency and the Roosevelt team responded with an article in Liberty magazine, which included details from an examination by a team of doctors declaring Roosevelt’s health, was up to the challenge. However, Crispell and Gomez note that this report contained worries for the future. The public had concentrated on the polio, but Roosevelt also showed signs even then of hypertension.

Roosevelt won the nomination and the presidency. Many Americans were unaware that their president had to spend much of his time in a wheelchair. During a speaking engagement in 1932, Steve Neal notes that Roosevelt moved away from the podium, lost his balance and fell.

Aides got him to his feet and Roosevelt immediately resumed the speech at the point he had been cut off. The crowd was very impressed. Roosevelt was able to win the cooperation of reporters in playing down the extent of his disability and was generally photographed from above the waist; there are only a few photos of him in a wheelchair.

Roosevelt’s physician in the White House was Ross McIntire. According to Robert Ferrell, McIntire received this assignment on the recommendation of Cary Grayson, the physician who treated Woodrow Wilson during his presidency. McIntire’s specialty was ears, nose, throat and eyes and it was explained that the president’s chief worries were sinus problems. In his memoir White House Physician, McIntire also explains that besides his friendship with Grayson, the fact that he was a man who could keep his mouth shut was an asset.

Ferrell does not have a high regard for McIntire’s abilities; he argues that the doctor’s examinations of the President were very cursory and McIntire may have been too deferential to Roosevelt for the President’s own good. Fortunately, Roosevelt had few serious health problems for the first ten years of his presidency, but by 1943, this situation changed.

Roosevelt had returned from a summit meeting in Tehran in late 1943 and became ill. He was quite subject to bouts with flu. However, by March of 1944, it was apparent that he was not rallying. His daughter Anna insisted that Dr. McIntire seek consultation with other doctors.

On March 28, 1944, Roosevelt received a complete physical including a cardiac examination. Dr. Howard G. Bruenn handled this. Bruenn’s diagnosis was that the President was suffering from “hypertension, hypertensive heart disease, cardiac failure (left ventricle), and acute bronchitis. (Bruenn, p. 580). Bruenn recommended a week or two of rest, the use of digitalis, a lighter, salt-free diet, and codeine for the cough and a moderate loss of weight. However, given the president’s schedule, this was not carried out right away. McIntire thought the use of digitalis was going too far. In Ferrell’s account, Bruenn found himself against the Surgeon General and a team of leading doctors at Bethesda, including Officer in Command John Harper, Executive Officer Robert Duncan, radiology head Charles Behrens, and Paul Dickens, a professor of medicine at George Washington University. Also involved were two honorary medical consultants, James Paullin and Frank Lacey. These latter two conducted another examination of the president on March 31st. Bruenn held firm on the need for digitalization and after three meetings and a threat to remove himself from the case, he was authorized to begin. Within ten days, Roosevelt showed remarkable improvement. Bruenn found himself making frequent visits to the White House.

Democratic leaders could see Roosevelt’s health was in decline and worried that he would not survive a fourth term. Worse, many had serious doubts about the abilities of Vice President Henry Wallace, who was seen by some as either overly idealistic or dangerously radical. In the end, Harry Truman replaced Wallace on the ticket, although not before a lively fight for the nomination. Roosevelt himself accepted his re-nomination in a radio address to the convention.

However, he was photographed at an unfortunate angle and this picture indicated to many that the President was a sick man. Roosevelt retained enough energy to launch a fiery campaign. In New York, he rode through the streets on a rainy day, stopping at a garage to be given brandy and dry clothes. That November, he was re-elected to his fourth term.

In April of 1945, Dr. Bruenn accompanied Roosevelt to his Warm Springs retreat. The President’s health had been in decline since March. Bruenn thought he was seeing some signs of progress, but then, on April 12, the President suffered a massive stroke. Bruenn tried to revive him, without success. Just hours after the stroke, Roosevelt was dead.

Articles and books used for this piece include:

Howard G.  "Clinical notes on the illness and death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt."  Annals of Internal Medicine. Apr1970, 72(4):579-91.

Crispell, Kenneth and Carlos Gomez.  Hidden Illness in the White House. Durham : Duke University Press, 1988.

Ferrell, Robert.  Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944. Columbia : University of Missouri Press, 1994. 

Ferrell, Robert. The Dying President: Franklin D. Roosevelt 1944-1945. Columbia, Mo. ; London : University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Gallagher, Hugh Gregory.  FDR’s Splendid Deception.  New York : Dodd, Mead, 1985.

Gould, Tony.  A Summer Plague: Polio and Its Survivors. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1995.

Neal, Steve.  Happy Days Are Here Again : the 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR--and How America Was Changed Forever.  New York : William Morrow, 2004.