In the summer of 1921, at the age of 39, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) had the sudden onset of low back pain, muscle weakness and the inability to bear his own weight. After several misdiagnoses (blood clot, tumor) and ineffective therapies (massage, hot baths), he was diagnosed with infantile paralysis. Halting his developing political career, FDR began a rigorous rehabilitation process at his home in Hyde Park, New York. Soon swimming became his main exercise. By the winter of 1921, his arms regained strength and his stomach and lower back were getting stronger.
In January 1922, FDR was fitted with full-leg braces that locked at the knee. By spring, he could stand with assistance. Resolving that he would one day be able to walk the length of his driveway ( 1/4 mile), he trained continuously. Hearing of its purported healing waters, FDR began visiting Warm Springs, Georgia in 1924. Although not cured of his paraplegia, he made good progress and eventually bought the facility, transforming it into a hydrotherapeutic rehabilitation center for polio patients.
Although disability was generally frowned upon in the 1920s, as FDR began to ascend the political ladder, he found Americans were sympathetic to his condition rather than embarrassed. Fueled by America’s “good cheer” he was elected governor of New York in 1928; and in 1932, President of the United States.
In private, FDR used a small, custom-built wheelchair designed to move around tight corners and narrow hallways with ease. In public, he “walked” with support of a cane and the arm of his son or advisor. Maneuvering his hips and swinging his legs forward, FDR gave the credible impression that he was walking. On stairs, he supported his weight with his arms, as if on parallel bars, and swung himself down to the next step.
Of the press, FDR requested no photographs while walking, maneuvering, or being transferred from his car. With the occasional noncompliant photographer, the Secret Service would intervene.