Revisiting the ailments of famous historical persons in light of contemporary medical understanding has become a common academic hobby. Public discussion of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) diagnosis of poliomyelitis after his sudden onset of paralysis in 1921 has received just such a revisitation. Recently, this 2003 historical analysis has been referenced widely on the Internet and in biographies, raising speculation that his actual diagnosis should have been Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a noncontagious disease of the peripheral nervous system rather than poliomyelitis. The authors of that 2003 analysis used a statistical analysis of his case by selectively choosing some of his reported symptoms. FDR's diagnosis of poliomyelitis, however, was fully supported by the findings of leading expert physicians of that time, who were very knowledgeable in the then-common disease and who periodically examined him during the period of 1921-1924. The most significant diagnostic features of polio are the absence of objective sensory findings in the presence of flaccid motor paralysis. These features are consistent with diagnostic criteria extant during the periods of major poliomyelitis epidemics as well as those of the Center for Disease Control 90 years later. Additional findings of fever, prodromal hyperesthesia, more severe residual proximal muscle weakness, and extensive lower extremity impairment requiring mobility with long leg braces or a wheelchair give further evidence for the diagnosis in FDR's case. Nonbulbar Guillain-Barré Syndrome, which shares the features of a flaccid paralysis and thus mimicking the initial presentation of poliomyelitis, has more than an 80% complete recovery with no reported cases of eventual wheelchair use. The most severe cases of Guillain-Barré Syndrome often have persistent objective sensory loss, associated with greater weakness in the feet and hands, which show no resemblance to FDR's impairment and disability. In light of the expert initial assessments by physicians completely familiar with the signs and symptoms of the then-common disease, review of his initial and subsequent disease course, and residual symptoms in comparison with those of Guillain-Barré syndrome, we find no reason to question the diagnostic accuracy of poliomyelitis and wish to put this debate to rest.
Recommended CitationDitunno, Jr, John F.; Becker, Bruce E.; and Herbison, Gerald J., "Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Diagnosis of Poliomyelitis Revisited." (2016). Department of Rehabilitation Medicine Faculty Papers. Paper 44.