When I was growing up in the 1940’s, come summertime, my mother wouldn’t let me swim in public swimming pools or go to the beach at the neighborhood pond.
Of course, I thought this was horribly unfair. But she had a very good reason, one that may not be familiar to anyone under age 60: Polio.
Also known as infantile paralysis, polio is an incurable viral disease that often leaves those infected ‒ frequently children ‒ with lasting paralysis in their limbs, even their lungs. The infection was thought to spread through the water, which is why for years there was no summer swimming for me and thousands of other kids.
Indeed, for years, the threat of polio was what terrified American mothers the most. A child coming down with an unexpected and unexplained fever was cause for enormous family alarm. Then came one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history, announced right here at the University of Michigan.
On April 12, 1955 at the Rackham Auditorium, the world learned that a “safe, effective and potent” polio vaccine had been developed. Dr. Thomas Francis, head of the epidemiology department at the newly formed School of Public Health and later the director of the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center, made the announcement to a jam-packed audience.
Among those present was his colleague, Dr. Jonas Salk, who actually developed the vaccine. I was a junior in high school at that time and was there. I listened in amazement as the speakers told the story: More than 1.8 million children participated in the field trials that validated the safe use of the Salk vaccine; $17.5 million was spent on the field trials; data were collected from the U.S., Canada and Finland; 20,000 physicians took part in the research.
Polio had been effectively vanquished.
The event left me convinced that medical science, properly organized and focused, fully funded and in the public interest, was and is one of the shining achievements of America.
Recent sharp cuts in federal funding for the National Science Foundation and other basic research efforts led me to more than wonder about the priorities of our leaders in Washington.
Years after the vaccine was announced, that memory triggered my enthusiasm for “The Man He Became,” a book which chronicles Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infection with polio, which struck him at age 39, and his long and exhausting struggles literally to learn to stand and walk again, right through his eventual election as President.
Ann Arbor-based author James Tobin, a former Detroit News reporter, has written a psychologically acute account of how Roosevelt’s struggles to overcome his adversity forged a new, stronger, deeper person out of the ambitious and aristocratic scion of a famous family.
In his play, “As You Like It,” William Shakespeare wrote:
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.”
Roosevelt internalized his long struggle to cope with the terrible effects of polio by realizing there were countless others who needed help. He bought and developed at Warm Springs, Georgia a resort devoted to the most advanced treatments for polio. Over the years, he developed a capacity for empathy, learning to reach beyond the boundaries of his aristocratic family upbringing.
That ultimately resulted in a profound character change that re-made Roosevelt into the warm, popular figure known to millions. Tobin concludes FDR became president less in spite of polio than because of polio ‒ and chronicles how he was shaped by the disease.
In my own life, I’ve experienced adversity, but nothing like what FDR went through. I broke my back when I was 18, which required a spinal fusion. As I lay in my hospital bed, hurting and feeling very sorry for myself, I looked out the door to see a patient with both arms amputated, being rolled past in a wheelchair.
“Now there’s somebody who’s really badly off,” I thought to myself. I gritted my teeth, rolled out of bed and went over to talk. And I realized that the guy in the wheelchair was far braver than I, far more able to accommodate to his dire condition and far more courageous in facing his future. I never forgot that encounter, and when I read “The Man He Became,” it all came back to me movingly.
The uses of adversity are many and powerful: to provide a sense of proportion, a spur for personal courage and humility, a better sense of membership in the entire human condition.
With so many posturing ‒ dare I say, narcissistic? ‒ aspiring national leaders running around these days, it would be interesting to know what sort of adversity each has faced. It might be even more telling to learn how they responded to and were shaped by it.