The Age of Polio: How an Old Virus and New Toxins Triggered a Man-made Epidemic -- Part 3, Making Sense of Campobello
Despite its name, the town of Cherryfield in Washington County, Maine, calls itself the Blueberry Capital of the World, and there is no disputing the claim. More than 90 percent of the world’s commercial blueberries are grown in Washington County, and Cherryfield is a major processing and shipping center. Machias, the county seat, hosts the annual Blueberry Festival every August. The festival puts on a musical, this year titled “Blueberry Fields Forever,” and a pie-eating contest – blueberry, of course.
The area has a couple of other claims to fame. Washington County hugs the Atlantic Coast where the United States meets Canada, the easternmost point in the United States; the city of Eastport is the first to see the sunrise. The region is known as Down East.
[A Map of Washington County Maine, also known as Sunrise County, with Cherryfield and Campobello circled. Click photo to enlarge.]
Two miles offshore is the island of Campobello, part of New Brunswick, Canada, where Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family spent summers. It was on his “beloved island” in August, 1921 – ninety years ago – that Roosevelt was afflicted with a paralytic illness diagnosed as poliomyelitis.
But this remote and lightly populated area already had a significant history with polio – one of the first clusters in the United States occurred in Cherryfield a quarter-century earlier, in 1896 (we cited it in our list of pre-1910 outbreaks with links to fruits and vegetables). Seven children were affected, and one died. In all the discussion and theorizing about Roosevelt’s illness over the intervening decades, this convergence has been overlooked.
Roosevelt arrived at Campobello on Sunday afternoon, August 7, on the yacht of a friend who sailed him up from New York City. The previous week, Roosevelt had visited a Boy Scout camporee on Bear Mountain, N.Y., not far from the family’s Hudson River home in Hyde Park.[i]
At the dock, his family was waiting. His children played on the yacht through the adults’ cocktail hour, then were taken home while Franklin and Eleanor stayed for an elegant dinner on the fantailed aft deck, served by uniformed stewards.
Three days later, on Wednesday, August 10, Roosevelt went to bed early in the cranberry-red cottage on Campobello Island, unusually tired and suspecting “a slight case of lumbago” (lower back pain). He had chills during the night, and in the morning one of his legs was weak; the paralysis had begun. By the next night, both legs were paralyzed.
Because of the defining role it played in his life and, inevitably, world history, the days leading up to the attack have been dissected in detail by Roosevelt’s multiple biographers. Most historians believe he contracted the poliovirus on his visit to the Boy Scouts, which would have multiplied the chances of exposure to a youth with an active infection. Alternatively, he could have come down with the virus sometime between the Bear Mountain trip and his departure for Campobello.
After his arrival at Campobello, much has been made of a fall overboard while sailing in the Bay of Fundy; of his typically energetic activities on the day he first felt ill, which included putting out a small forest fire on a nearby island and going for a dip with his children in a freshwater pond near his house. The “paralyzingly cold” water of the Bay of Fundy became an ominous metaphor for what was about to happen, but was never a serious biological argument.
[A Map of Campobello Island. Note in addition to the FDR Memorial Bridge, also Cranberry Point, Gooseberry Point, Cranberry Point Drive. Click photo to enlarge.]
Since most victims were infants or children, the fact that Roosevelt was 39 at the time has also gotten attention. In 2003, a study in The Journal of Medical Biography proposed Roosevelt actually had Guillain–Barré syndrome, not poliomyelitis.[ii] While interesting, the evidence for such a diagnosis is not strong. Arguing against it is a comment by Elliott Roosevelt, FDR’s young son who was present when his father took ill. He and other children went on a previously planned camping trip – now without their stricken father -- because Eleanor wanted to keep them away from the risk of infection.
On that trip, Elliott wrote, “each of us children had some of the same symptoms as Father but in much milder form. We had runny noses, slight temperatures, and, a telltale sign, an odd feeling of stiffness in the neck. These comparatively mild aches and pains got overlooked in the developing crisis which gripped us all.”[iii]
Poliomyelitis remains the likeliest diagnosis: the timeline fits with an exposure at the Boy Scout camp. Estimates of the incubation period – typically a week or two, though that can vary considerably in either direction –match the Roosevelt scenario, no longer than 13 days.
And Roosevelt’s presence in the world’s commercial blueberry capital at harvest time when his illness struck seems remarkable in light of the lead arsenate theory, which already had been proposed more than once in the decade before his illness. (Next year’s Blueberry Festival begins August 14.) Eleanor herself did the family’s grocery marketing in Eastport, and Roosevelt’s love of blueberries and other fresh fruit is well documented. His chef in the White House, Henrietta Nesbitt, wrote that he was “fond of blueberry and other pies.”[iv] In the cafeteria at FDR’s presidential library in Hyde Park, the Henrietta Nesbitt Café, the most prominent picture is of the broadly grinning president being served a big piece of pie.
Before a trip to South America, Nesbitt wrote, “I made up a list of his favorite dishes for the ship’s mess, and it was practically a copy of the list Mrs. Roosevelt had made out and had ready for me on my first day at the White House.” That list began with “Roast beef pink juice running” and includes “frozen strawberries, raspberries, and cherries for dessert.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s recipe for Blueberry Pudding has survived.[v]
None of this shows FDR eating a mound of fresh blueberries treated with lead arsenate in August 1921, but it seems more probable than not.
Roosevelt famously survived polio, turning his personal tragedy into “Sunrise at Campobello” and leading America through the Great Depression and World War II, though his health flagged in later years as a result of his battle with polio. Some historians believe he was not up to the task of confronting Stalin at the Yalta conference that shaped the post-War world and led to the descent of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945, the retreat where he had worked valiantly to overcome paralysis and help others do the same.
In death he became a symbol for the suffering of thousands of polio victims and galvanized the search for a vaccine. Sadly, despite the March of Dimes campaign he helped launch to find the cause and cure, polio outbreaks were about to get worse. Much worse.
(Next: DDT and the Triumph of Vaccination.)
[i] A particularly thorough account, which ours relies on, is in Kenneth S. Davis, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928. History Book Club: 2004.
[ii] A.S. Goldman, E.J. Schmalstieg, D.H. Freeman et al. "What was the cause of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's paralytic illness?" J Med Biogr. 2003 Nov;11(4):232-40.
[iii] Elliott Roosevelt and James Brough, An Untold Story – The Roosevelts of Hyde Park, Dell Publishing, 1974.
[iv] Henrietta Nesbitt, White House Diary, Frazer Press, 2007.[v] http://paul.wojtysiak.com/applications/myrecipes/Eleanor_Roosevelt_s_Blueberry_Pu-4071.html