[While he was governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] polio seemed almost forgotten — but would the nation at large react the same when he ran for president?
“To reassure any doubters, his old friend and navy superior Josephus Daniels penned an article for the Saturday Evening Post in September 1932…. ‘The fact that conservative and nonpolitical life insurance executives,’ Daniels wrote, ‘after thorough examination by medical experts, insured his life for $500,000 thus demonstrated by the highest testimony that physically he is sound.’
“While not perceived as cured, Franklin was generally regarded by his physicians as having overcome the worst of his disability….In fact, Franklin could get around only moderately better than he could a decade earlier; what [Warm Springs Rehabilitation Institute] had done was strengthen his upper body and, more important, his spirit….”
— From “The Wars of the Roosevelts” by William J. Mann (2016)
Iron lung — what a name. The recent reissue of “Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung” by Martha Mason made me wonder about other surviving iron lungs. This one sure has a curious provenance.
Even at the height of the polio epidemic, why would a “Charlotte Lifesaving Crew” need an iron lung? And why would it have wound up at the Mecklenburg Hotel?
Here’s what Anne Anderson, curator of East Carolina University’s Country Doctor Museum in Bailey, has to offer:
“It is unclear how the Mecklenburg Hotel came to possess the iron lung. It was gifted to the Museum in 1998. [The hotel closed in 1975.] I believe the “Charlotte Life Saving Crew” refers not to Charlotte, N.C., but to the Charlotte Life Saving Station on Lake Ontario near Rochester, N.Y. This station was eventually taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard, and a history of the station indicates they had mobile life saving equipment at the facility. Perhaps this included the iron lung, as these respirators were known to help regulate the breathing of divers and rescue victims….
“Hand-written notes made on adhesive bandages on the exterior of the iron lung lead me to think it might have been used in a hospital setting at some point. [One message reads], ‘Please leave the light off at all times unless needed for treatment or observation.’
“Many of our older guests recognize the iron lung right away and will share stories with us about their personal, or a loved one’s, experience with polio. Alternatively, many of our youngest guests (school children) have never heard of polio and guess the iron lung is a washing machine or a tanning bed.”
“In 1944 polio swept through defenseless communities…. The worst epidemic, near Hickory, North Carolina, would provide the first real test for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
“The foundation agreed to equip and staff a makeshift polio hospital…. Like most polio epidemics, the one in Hickory faded with the cooling winds of fall. The hospital had treated 454 patients. All told, the foundation spent about $400,000 during the epidemic…..
“The publicity was priceless. ‘The Miracle of Hickory’ became a staple in future fund-raising efforts. Photographs of smiling victims were distributed nationwide. The caption read: ‘These are some of the Children your Dimes and Dollars Helped.’…Here were the first poster children….
“In 1946 the [National Foundation’s] March of Dimes introduced its first ‘official’ polio poster child. The idea was controversial….How did one portray a polio victim? As cheerful and optimistic or frightened and sad? … Guided by the ‘Miracle of Hickory’ campaign, the foundation chose option No. 1….”
–From “Polio: An American Story” (2005) by David M. Oshinsky