Did Franklin D Roosevelt have Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

39 years old Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was beginning his political career when he was diagnosed with paralytic poliomyelitis (polio) after he suffered an illness with symptoms almost similar to those of polio. FDR recovered partially; however, he was permanently bound to his wheelchair and could not stand without support. This, however, did not kill his political ambitions. He became New York's governor in 1928 and later served as the president of the United States of America. In fact, he is the only president who served for four terms.

The fact that Roosevelt was really struck by polio is indeed questionable. Even though FDR was diagnosed with polio, his age and other symptoms, however, were consistent with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS); an autoimmune disorder - the immune system unknowingly attacks the healthy tissue-cells. This could have arisen after immunization or due to the mild infection he suffered. Roosevelt's symptoms eventually resolved, but he was left paralyzed. According to the physician who handled him, GBS was more responsible for Roosevelt's crippling side effects: the disease damages motor and sensory nerves.

Researchers after conducting the new analysis of FDRs symptoms suggested that it was GBS that actually paralyzed the president. Scientists based their re-diagnosis of the late president's condition with symptoms that are not concordant with polio such as; his age - polio is more common in younger people than in adults, his intense pain on the paralyzed legs - polio patients after a while feels no pain at all, even crippling of limbs which was inconsistent with polio - polio paralyzes unevenly, polio paralysis is restricted to the limbs - it doesn't affect the upper body. The bowel and bladder dysfunction that FDR suffered are also inconsistent with polio.

A team of Texas scientists headed by Doctor Armond S Goldman disputed the polio diagnosis that FDRs doctor had made decades ago. The Texas scientists carried out Bayesian Analysis (the probability analysis calculated by getting the product of the rate of polio in adults by the likelihood of the symptoms Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to occur in either polio or GBS). The statistical analysis gives a probability of 1 out of 4 that Roosevelt suffered from paralytic poliomyelitis while the remaining 3 out of 4 clearly suggests that he suffered from GBS.

Professor of Medicine - Dr Armond Goldman - the University of Texas, stressed on the fact that the absence of laboratory tests could have been a major contribution to FDRs misdiagnosis. Dr Goldman has good exposure on patients ailing from both conditions and is so confident to dispute the initial diagnosis of FDR. Other doctors like Dr Allan Ropper of Boston questioned Goldman's re-diagnosis, basing his argument on historical archives that recorded mobility on one of FDR's legs occasionally. Some historians also accused the doctor of attempting to rewrite history. Facts by Dr Goldman, however, tend to strengthen his point of view.

Roosevelt's doctor, Robert W. Lovett, believed that the president had contracted the polio virus when he visited a Scout camp 13 days earlier. Dr Lovett was then the leading American doctor for polio. For him, fever and the crippling side effects were sufficient to diagnose the president with polio. The reason why all factors were pointed at polio, the disease was rampant during that period with several outbreaks reported during the previous summer in many cities. In addition, very little was known of the Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

The truth is that even if the doctors would have correctly diagnosed FDR, there was no treatment for GBS and very little was known about it. Roosevelt would have still received the same treatment he did with polio diagnosis.

Roosevelt bounded on his wheelchair surely resembled a polio survivor. Roosevelt himself believed he had polio, which is why he started advocating for polio research which led to the March of Dime, officially known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, an initiative geared towards raising funds to fight polio. It was his famous misdiagnosis that initiated research on the disease, development of vaccine and several campaigns to create public awareness. It is so ironical that this misdiagnosis is saving thousands of lives today.