A new analysis of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s symptoms suggests he might not have been stricken by polio but by Guillain-Barré syndrome.
In 1921, at the beginning of his political career, Roosevelt became feverish and developed paralysis, which started in his legs and moved up to his neck. Although he recovered partially, he remained permanently wheelchair-bound.
Immunological pediatrician Armond Goldman of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston now says FDR’s symptoms are more concordant with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a bacterially induced autoimmune disease. For example, polio paralyzes limbs unevenly and doesn’t move up the body as happened with Roosevelt. The intense pain he felt when people touched his paralyzed legs isn’t commonly seen in poliomyelitis. What’s more, it would be highly unusual for polio to strike someone well into adulthood.
The Goldman team compiled all the details they could find of FDR’s case and scoured the literature to determine how common the symptoms were 80 years ago. They then calculated the likelihood that a 39-year-old man with each of Roosevelt’s eight symptoms would suffer from polio or Guillain-Barré. The latter emerged as the more likely cause of his paralysis, they report in the 1 November Journal of Medical Biography.
“The result is interesting both historically and neurologically,” says neurologist Deborah Green of the University of Hawaii School of Medicine in Manoa. FDR’s misdiagnosis–if such it was–may have changed the course of history, because his affliction gave great momentum to efforts to develop a polio vaccine. But Green notes that the only way to diagnose Guillain-Barre is by testing spinal cord fluid. Neurologist H. Royden Jones of Harvard Medical School in Boston adds that the researchers could be wrong in assuming that “Guillain-Barré is the same now as it was back then.”