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Birthday Balls for Polio

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Some of the first fundraisers to fight polio in North Dakota were birthday balls held in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was paralyzed from polio at age 39 and never again walked unaided. He became a leading force in the polio cause, and help found the March of Dimes.

Polio was a terrifying disease. Young children were most susceptible. The terrible virus could paralyze and even kill. North Dakota’s Health Department recorded more than 900 cases of polio in its first decade of recordkeeping on the disease, from 1924 to 1933. Back then, polio was called “infantile paralysis.”

The birthday balls began in 1934, seeking small donations by holding the dances throughout the country. Occurring during the Great Depression, the charitable contributions weren’t as big as they once were, but everyone could give something, however small, to help a child with polio.

That first year, 600 celebrations across the country raised over $1 million for Roosevelt’s Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. People with polio went to Warm Springs to bathe in its mineral waters, which were said to be therapeutic.

The first birthday ball was a hit as five hundred couples gathered in the auditorium of the World War Memorial Building in Bismarck. Gov. Bill Langer and Bismarck’s mayor led a grand march with their wives. On this date in 1934, the chairman of the birthday ball’s ticket committee announced that the event had raised $400. The money would be sent to President Roosevelt for the Warm Springs Foundation.

The birthday balls continued for a few years in North Dakota. The second ball, in 1935, raised $542. Organizers proposed a statewide organization to pool and distribute the birthday ball funds throughout North Dakota.

Soon, fundraising moved beyond the birthday balls. In 1938, President Roosevelt helped found the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. The foundation led the March of Dimes fundraising effort for polio vaccine research and patient care, and the idea of honoring Roosevelt by placing his image on dimes was in part due to his role in the effort. The foundation would eventually change its name to the March of Dimes. It became one of the most popular charitable organizations of the 20th Century. And its work had paid off. In 1955, 10 years to the day after President Roosevelt’s death, researchers announced a safe and effective polio vaccine.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura

The Bismarck Tribune. 1934, January 31. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1935, February 4. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 1937, August 16. Page 5
The Bismarck Tribune. 1955, April 12. Page 1
The Bismarck Tribune. 2001, August 19. Page C1
Oshinksy, D.M. (2005). Polio: An American story. Oxford University Press: New York, NY

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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