Polio was one of the most dreaded illnesses of the 20th century, and had killed or paralyzed thousands of Americans during the first half of the 20th century. President Franklin D. Roosevelt therefore founded the March of Dimes as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis on January 3, 1938. Roosevelt himself was paralyzed with what at the time was believed to be polio, though it now seems this diagnosis might have been mistaken.
The original purpose of the Foundation was to raise money for polio research and to care for those suffering from the disease. The name emphasized the national, nonpartisan, and public nature of the new organization, as opposed to private foundations established by wealthy families. The effort began with a radio appeal, asking everyone in the nation to contribute a dime (10 cents) to fight polio. “March of Dimes” was originally the name of the annual fundraising event held in January by the Foundation. The name “March of Dimes” for the fundraising campaign was coined by entertainer Eddie Cantor as a play on the popular newsreel feature of the day, The March of Time. Along with Cantor, many top Hollywood, Broadway, radio, and television stars served as promoters of the charity.
When Roosevelt died in office in 1945, he was commemorated by placing his portrait on the dime. By a happy coincidence, this was the only coin in wide circulation which had a purely allegorical figure (Liberty) on the obverse. To put Roosevelt on any other coin would have required displacing a president or founding father. Over the years, the name “March of Dimes” became synonymous with that of the charity and was officially adopted in 1979.
For its first 17 years, the March of Dimes provided support for the work of many innovative and practical polio researchers and virologists. In the post-World War II years, the number of polio cases in the United States increased sharply, making the cause even more urgent. Then, on April 12, 1955 the Poliomyelitis Vaccine Evaluation Center at the University of Michigan held a news conference announcing to the world that the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk was “safe, potent, and effective.” The largest clinical trial in U.S. history, involving 1.8 million schoolchildren, had shown the vaccine to be 80 to 90 percent effective in preventing paralytic polio.
For a number of years, a national March of Dimes poster child or family was chosen to symbolize those afflicted by the disease. After supporting the development of two successful vaccines against polio (both Jonas Salk’s and Albert Sabin’s research were largely funded by the March of Dimes), the organization, rather than going out of business, decided in 1958 to use its charitable infrastructure to serve mothers and babies with a new mission: to prevent premature birth, birth defects and infant mortality. The organization accomplishes this with programs of research, community services, education, and advocacy, along with the annual March for Babies