When he was 9 years old, Harry Truman contracted diphtheria. His brother, Vivian, was also diagnosed with it. But while Vivian recovered quickly, Harry “took a dramatic turn for the worse,” in the words of David McCullough, author of “Truman.”
His arms and legs were paralyzed, and his mother wheeled him around in a carriage. He was sick for months until “abruptly, miraculously he recovered….” With the exception of his childhood bout with diphtheria, Harry Truman was healthy for most of his life. He was physically fit; walking was his favorite exercise.
And as president, Harry Truman was concerned about the health needs of the nation. He championed a national health insurance program, and he advocated for the Universal Military Training program, which trained young men for service in the military and industries in the event of a national emergency. His interest in the program arose in part from his wish to keep Americans healthy; he was well aware that many Americans had been declared physically unfit for service during World War II.
Another public health concern that impacted Truman’s presidency was the polio epidemic, which originated during the early 20th century. Its most famous victim was Truman’s immediate predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt. Historian Dave Welky has recently written that President Roosevelt was the person “most responsible for elevating polio into a national concern.” (See https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/174983.)
Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly contagious viral infection. It was also called infantile paralysis, although adults also were affected. The number of polio cases peaked in the U.S. at over 57,800 with 3,145 deaths in 1952, the last full year of the Truman administration. Survivors often were wheelchair-bound, used crutches, or breathed using “iron lungs,” a type of respirator.
For decades, polio caused widespread fear, especially during the summer “polio season,” when infections seemed to peak. People refused to go to swimming pools and movie theaters, which often closed for the summer. (See https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/the-deadly-polio-epidemic-and-why-it-matters-for-coronavirus.) Some quickly recovered, but others were impacted for life. Some victims were asymptomatic, while others suffered mild or severe symptoms. Only about 1-2% of polio victims actually experienced paralysis, and only a subset of these victims became permanently paralyzed. (See https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-polio-poliomyelitis.)
As he was in so many other ways, Truman was globally-minded in his approach to solving the polio problem in the United States. In a radio address to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1948, he said, “For the first time in medical history, authorities on infantile paralysis from every part of the world will meet in New York next summer to exchange and discuss information about polio. Our Department of State has already invited representatives from more than 60 nations to participate in this international conference being sponsored by the National Foundation.”
He also noted that “When cases of infantile paralysis were reported among our occupation troops in Germany last year, your National Foundation went into action immediately. A complete unit of doctors, nurses, and technicians especially trained in the treatment of polio, was ready within a few hours to fly to the aid of our American soldiers.”
In 1950, Earl McGrath, commissioner of education, issued a leaflet, “A Message about Polio,” for distribution through schools. The following year, McGrath issued a statement that in the event of polio, “intelligent action based on reliable information is of vital importance.” Teachers played a “leading role” in bringing that knowledge to children and their parents.
The First Family also took an active interest in the fight against polio. Bess Truman visited children with polio in hospitals, and in 1948, Margaret Truman helped launch a March of Dimes fundraising campaign against polio.
In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine. Dr. Albert Sabin developed his own vaccine a few years later. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no cases of polio have originated in the United States since 1979. The last time travelers with polio brought the disease into the U.S. was in 1993. (See https://www.cdc.gov/polio/what-is-polio/polio-us.html.)
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.