Posts Tagged ‘polio’

A fellowship and a double helix

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

genetic-counseling1In 1952, James Watson was an unknown scientist who applied to the March of Dimes for a fellowship proposing research on X-ray diffraction patterns of proteins and nucleic acids. Knowing that the March of Dimes funded basic science as well as polio prevention, Watson hoped that the grant he would receive might enable him to conduct a year of research and cover his lab expenses. His modest grant award of $5,678, roughly equivalent to $50,000 today, led to one of the most momentous discoveries of the age. On April 25, 1953 Watson and his colleague Francis Crick published “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid” in the journal Nature. The field of molecular genetics was launched. They had discovered the double-helical structure of DNA.

Much has been written about Watson and Crick’s famous discovery, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 1962. Their path-breaking research vastly expanded the field of genetics, leading to knowledge unimaginable in their day. Their accomplishment also prefigured what the March of Dimes would do next. After funding the vaccines that brought the scourge of polio to a halt, the Foundation turned to the riddle of birth defects, knowing that the keys of genetics would open further doors to this intractable problem.

By the 1960s, the March of Dimes sponsored birth defects and clinical genetics conferences to keep medical professionals up-to-date with progress in the field. We helped to develop a universal standardized language (the karyotype) to describe human chromosomes. At a March of Dimes conference in 1969, Dr. Victor McKusick proposed that science might create a molecular map of all genes. His idea sparked the March of Dimes to organize a series of human gene mapping workshops that ultimately led to the Human Genome Project of the 1990s.

Our interest in genetics goes beyond science itself to assisting individuals and families. We have developed the field of genetic counseling to help parents and parents-to-be understand the risks of inherited disorders. We helped to establish the first master’s degree program in genetic counseling at a U.S. college. In the 1980s we sponsored an educational program on Genetic Decision Making and Pastoral Care, enabling clergy from different religions to understand the complexities of genetics in order to give appropriate counseling to concerned families. At the same time, our funding of scientific research has remained fundamental. Our grantees have identified the gene for Fragile X Syndrome and have created therapies for other life-threatening disorders.

As we note the 60th anniversary of Watson and Crick’s famous article on the double helix of DNA, we look forward to a time when birth defects and premature birth have receded into the past just as polio has done. Our steadfast commitment to “stronger, healthier babies” is grounded in the building blocks of genetics that help us identify the causes of disease.

The Military and the March of Dimes

Monday, November 12th, 2012


In its drive to promote healthy pregnancy, the March of Dimes considers every avenue of outreach. This has included cordial ties with U.S. Armed Forces in order to support military families. Historically, our earliest years coincided with the global catastrophe of World War II when our founder – President Franklin D. Roosevelt – was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. In that troubled time, our military ties were many and various. An early research grant went to Drs. John Paul and Albert Sabin to find out why American GIs in Egypt contracted polio when native populations seemed immune to the disease. The Foundation created a fund-raising unit that coordinated its annual “March of Dimes” campaigns with all branches of the military. Our Armed Forces Division was so popular that top brass such as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Admiral Chester Nimitz wrote enthusiastic public messages of support for our fight against polio.

After the war, the most conspicuous military program was the Military Air Transport Service (MATS). MATS was a standing agreement of the March of Dimes with the U.S. Air Force to airlift iron lung respirators to epidemic areas and even individuals with paralytic polio to hospitals for special care. In one case, MATS cargo aircraft shipped iron lungs to a polio epidemic in Japan in 1961. With the advent of the Salk polio vaccine developed with March of Dimes funds, the Foundation ensured that military personnel were protected from the polio virus. Military personnel and their families from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard dispensary to the U.S. Army Hospital at West Point participated in March of Dimes polio vaccination programs.

When the March of Dimes turned toward birth defects prevention in the 1960s, our involvement with the military also turned in a new direction. We then maintained on staff an official liaison to the military as we broadened our approach to birth defects by focusing on all the determinants of healthy pregnancy. And, in our examination of the genetic causes of birth defects, we provided advice to Viet Nam era veteran groups about medical and genetic counseling for victims of Agent Orange. Our relationship to the Veterans of Foreign Wars has been mutually supportive for decades, and several March of Dimes national ambassadors have been members of military families. One of these, Cody Groce, was very proud to appear with Gen. Colin Powell at our National Youth Leadership Conference in Washington, DC in 1998. Our most recent effort in support of military families has been our involvement in Operation Shower.

In the darkest days of World War II, FDR offered these words to characterize his understanding of the March of Dimes mission: “Nothing is closer to my heart than the health of our boys and girls and young men and young women. It is one of the front lines of national defense.” With this impetus, the March of Dimes went on to defeat polio and launch a new mission against birth defects and prematurity. FDR’s original sentiment bears close resemblance to our passionate quest for “stronger, healthier babies” today.

Note on photo: Sailors in formation spell out “March of Dimes” on board aircraft carrier USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1962

Helen Hayes and Mothers March

Monday, March 26th, 2012
Helen Hayes, 1963

Helen Hayes, 1963

To be touched by our mission is to be cruelly blessed. The “touching” connotes sorrow and loss, sometimes irrevocable loss. Accepting a “mission” usually means being fired by hope and commitment. In the case of Helen Hayes (1900-1993), both of these were true to a maximum degree. Helen Hayes lost her daughter to polio in 1949, and thereafter she did as much as one person might do to fight a killer disease to forestall the suffering of others. Her story is one full of optimism and achievement; in a subtler way it is also one of redemption.

Helen Hayes was a pre-eminent and beloved actress of mid-century America. Her Broadway roles ranged from Shakespearean classics to modern theater, and her engagement with cinema began in the silent screen era to culminate in blockbusters like Airport, for which she won an Academy Award. Her daughter Mary MacArthur was an aspiring actress whose life was cut short at age 19 during the polio epidemic of 1949. So devastating was this epidemic that the March of Dimes, fully at war with polio yet facing depleted funds, called for an emergency campaign to address the catastrophe. Though Hayes had assisted the March of Dimes years before, she accepted a leading role with the Foundation in December 1949 three scant months after her daughter’s death.

Her role as spokesperson in the 1950 March of Dimes brought Helen Hayes again into the spotlight, this time as a volunteer. Women across the nation responded to her personal story as they responded to the opportunity of battling polio. A news editor wrote to Hayes: “According to the … New York Times you’ve agreed to direct the women’s activities for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis… [and] you’ll be urging women to volunteer for the March of Dimes. Well, this is just to say that if you will, you can consider me urged.” Her personal magnetism attracted a host of such admirers, and within one year Helen Hayes became the first national chair of a new fund-raiser called Mothers March, a post she held for ten years.

Eager to leverage the popularity of a world-renown actress into the battle against polio, PR Director Dorothy Ducas penned a speech for Hayes in 1951 titled “Polio of the Heart,” a reference to Hayes’s personal tragedy. But Hayes declined to use the speech, apologizing that the writing was “beautiful – but can’t stand … any reference to my personal grief in print.” She went on to establish the Mary MacArthur Fund to fight polio, to assist the March of Dimes to create respiratory care centers, and to see the Foundation into the next decade by promoting its mission of birth defects prevention. Though we cannot know how her personal sorrow was transformed in the process of this dedicated service, she remained a stalwart friend of the March of Dimes. Today, as we honor the memory of Helen Hayes in celebration of Women’s History Month, we also acknowledge how so many others have been personally touched by our mission.

Thurgood Marshall and the March of Dimes

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

thurgood-marshallThurgood Marshall (1908-1993) will long be remembered as one of the key members of the United States Supreme Court, serving as an associate justice from 1967 to 1991. He was the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court, appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after an illustrious career as an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1954, the year in which the March of Dimes polio vaccine field trial was under way to test the effectiveness of the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, Thurgood Marshall argued as an NAACP lawyer his most famous case before the Supreme Court. In Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, the court issued a landmark decision which effectively rendered racial discrimination in public education illegal in the United States.

Brown v. Board of Education and the Salk polio vaccine field trial both changed America for the better. The first ensured that African-Americans could not be prevented from attending the same schools as whites. The second ushered in a period of polio immunization led by the March of Dimes that ended the threat of polio in the U.S. within a few short years. Thurgood Marshall, seen in the 1957 photo here with his wife and young son, supported our efforts by rolling up his sleeve to get his “Salk shot” as did countless thousands of others in the drive to defeat polio. Marshall, along with many other black celebrities from the worlds of sports, art, entertainment, and politics either gave performances in support of the March of Dimes or posed for photos in vaccination scenes that expressed a clear message: getting vaccinated was the only way to prevent paralytic polio and the lifelong disabilities that it could cause.

Charles H. Bynum, our Director for Inter-Racial Relations in the 1950s, was the person responsible for recruiting black celebrities to the fight against polio. Mr. Bynum and the March of Dimes made polio care a civil rights issue, and stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays, and Jackie Robinson enthusiastically supported the Foundation to uphold its pledge that polio care would be offered equally to all. Thurgood Marshall was among these, and his endorsement of the Salk polio vaccine and the March of Dimes is implicit in his appearance in this historic photo. Today, in its mission to prevent birth defects and premature birth, the March of Dimes continues to provide current information about vaccination during pregnancy as well as childhood vaccination, as one of the many important ways to promote maternal and child health. We are proud to say that Justice Thurgood Marshall is prominent in this historic effort.

March of Dimes historical footage reel

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Here’s a look back on the March of Dimes’ efforts in the fight against polio. Jonas Salk, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Basil O’Connor are featured in this historical footage.

Happy birthday FDR!

Monday, January 30th, 2012

fdr-warm-springs-kidsThe only thing we have to fear is fear itself. This phrase, spoken by President Franklin Roosevelt in his inaugural address in 1933, brought sudden hope to millions of Americans suffering during the Great Depression. As Archivist of the March of Dimes, I am fascinated and inspired by Franklin Roosevelt for several reasons. Foremost among them is that FDR created the March of Dimes and the National Archives, but perhaps most remarkable is that FDR remains the only person in the history of the world elected as leader of his country yet could not walk or stand on his own. Stricken by paralytic polio at age 39, he never regained the use of his legs. Some say FDR tried to “hide” his polio disability, but I prefer to believe that he “stage managed” it for political ends. This included creating a concept and structure for the general fight against disease. What FDR accomplished in public health was to change the perception of disability and illness by creating an environment for successful recovery and re-integration into society at his polio rehabilitation center in Warm Springs, Georgia and by coordinating the organization of financial, scientific, and medical resources for the fight against disease through the March of Dimes.

At Warm Springs, FDR cast himself in the role of “Doc Roosevelt,” mingling freely with patients and taking genuine interest in their efforts to regain health. Though recovery from polio was often painful and incomplete, FDR’s polio colony was committed to remove the stigma of disability through its friendly, egalitarian environment at a time when any disability was perceived as a personal flaw. FDR’s visionary approach fostered independence and promoted social and psychological health. By the time FDR attained national prominence as President, America was suffering generally, snared in the Great Depression. One in every four persons was jobless. For countless people living hand-to-mouth, food and shelter were nonexistent. After the inauguration, FDR set in motion the rejuvenating social programs known as the New Deal. One year later, Warm Springs started an annual tradition – a birthday party for the president; not one, but hundreds throughout the U.S., to raise money for polio on January 30, FDR’s birthday.

FDR, with his law partner Basil O’Connor, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis in 1938, capitalizing on the popularity of the birthday balls and adding a fund-raiser with a magical name: The March of Dimes. The March of Dimes then developed during the greatest military cataclysm in history as Roosevelt was hailed by millions as world leader of free nations in the fight against fascism and world domination by the Axis powers. In his 1941 State of the Union address, FDR proposed Four Freedoms that all people should enjoy: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. To this, O’Connor later added a Fifth Freedom: Freedom from Disease. Though FDR could not have foreseen our present fight against prematurity and birth defects, today’s mission continues to gain momentum as part of President Roosevelt’s permanent legacy.

FDR brought the presidency into close intimacy with the American people through his fireside chats on radio and was beloved as a defender of the weak, the poor, the disabled, and the helpless. His reputation evolved from the New Deal, but it was his dauntless character that gave hope – he was fearless, ever optimistic, and had great good humor. He energized people and allowed them to release their own creative energies. He did not worry – he acted. On January 30, I will honor FDR on behalf of the March of Dimes by laying a wreath on his grave in a ceremony at Hyde Park, NY. In doing this, I believe that we also honor all the volunteers who have done so much for the March of Dimes, who have proven again and again that – in the words of Franklin Roosevelt – together we cannot fail.

Post-polio syndrome

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

A good friend of mine had polio as a child and I remember playing cards with her while she was bedridden. Now she is coping with post-polio syndrome. I have sent her information to try to understand what’s going on and links to support groups.

Post-polio syndrome (PPS) is a condition that affects a lot of people who had polio many years earlier. Polio (short for poliomyelitis, once called infantile paralysis) is a disease caused by a virus that can infect the nervous system, sometimes resulting in paralysis. Until the 1950s, polio disabled or killed thousands of people, mostly children and young adults, each year in the United States and countless others worldwide. Thanks to the Salk vaccine, and soon afterward the Sabin oral vaccine, natural polio infections have been eliminated from the United States for nearly thirty years. Both vaccines were developed fifty years ago with funding from the March of Dimes. However, many survivors of past polio epidemics are developing new problems.

The main symptom of PPS is new muscle weakness that gradually worsens. It often is paired with decreased muscle strength during activities, muscle and joint pain, muscle wasting and severe fatigue. Even muscles that were believed to be unharmed by the first bout with polio may be affected. Less often, breathing difficulties and swallowing problems may occur. These symptoms usually develop 15 years or more after the original illness.

The causes of PPS are not completely understood. Many researchers believe that PPS symptoms result, at least in part, from the unusual stress placed on surviving nerve cells. During the first attack of polio, some of the nerve cells (called motor neurons) in the spinal cord that control muscles are damaged or destroyed. Without impulses from these nerve cells, a muscle cannot function. Fortunately, some motor neurons usually survive the polio attack and send out new nerve connections to the orphaned muscle cells in an attempt to take over the work of the nerve cells that were destroyed. This process makes it possible for an individual to regain at least some use of affected muscles. But, after many years, the overburdened nerve cells may begin to fail, resulting in new muscle weakness.

The normal aging process also may play a role. With age, most people have a decrease in the number of motor neurons in their spinal cords. Persons who have not had polio can lose a considerable number of motor neurons as they age without experiencing any serious muscle weakness. However, among polio survivors who already have lost many motor neurons, this age-related loss may contribute to new muscle weakness.

The March of Dimes provides information to PPS patients and concerned professionals, and has provided grant support for research projects seeking improved treatments for PPS. In May 2000, the March of Dimes, in collaboration with the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, held an international conference on PPS, during which leading experts in the field shared information on its causes, diagnosis and treatment. A report of the conference’s proceedings has been published and distributed to medical professionals in order to help improve the care of PPS patients.

If you would like more information on post-polio syndrome, send a request to

Judy and Mickey support MOD

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

Take a look back to when these two famous kids helped support the March of Dimes efforts to find a vaccine for the dreaded crippler; Polio.