Thomas Doherty

via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.

Throughout much of the last century, a lethal and terrifying virus besieged America. Then, as now, the fear of contagion gripped ordinary Americans. And then — unlike now — a president displayed decisive leadership in fighting the virus, maintaining an unfailingly good humor and leaving the immunology to the experts.

The scourge was infantile paralysis, or polio, and the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was its most famous victim. First clinically described in the late 19th century and persisting deep into the 20th century, the virus invaded the nervous system and destroyed the nerve cells that stimulate muscle fibers, resulting in irreversible paralysis and sometimes death.

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