The Warm Springs Story Available Today!
The long-anticipated release of F. Martin Harmon’s The Warm Springs Story: Legacy and Legend has arrived! Mercer University Press is proud to be part of such important scholarship on a much neglected aspect of medical, presidential, and Southern history.
Today, F. Martin Harmon stops by the blog to offer us a few insights into the book.
1. Why has Warm Springs been so ignored in the studies of FDR?
This question is easy to answer because of the voluminous ways Franklin Roosevelt impacted his era. Looking back now, it seems he was involved in everything. By being president for so long, his fingerprints are all over the twentieth century, such as coping with the Great Depression with his various social programs, the build-up to WWII and the war years; the start of Social Security, rural electrification and the TVA, and national parks and the continued conservation efforts started by his cousin, Teddy, and so on. I just think historians ran out of time and space when it came to his adopted home. After all, Warm Springs was very much tied in with his disability and his own, very personal efforts to overcome polio, a struggle he kept in the background. With all of the other pieces of history that he touched, I just think historians have largely missed the important role he played in disability awareness, compassionate healthcare, rehabilitation, medical fundraising and research, and independent living—all things the famous “spirit of Warm Springs” was about. It’s understandable, but in its own way was no less impactful than all the other things for which he has been better known.
2. In the book, you discuss how close Warm Springs came to closing despite its historical significance. Why do you think states are so shortsighted in such matters?
In the early years, immediately following FDR’s death in 1945, polio was still very prevalent and there were good reasons for keeping the historical and medical parts of Warm Springs separate. The Georgia Warm Springs Foundation was still a very active force under FDR’s anointed lieutenant Basil O’Connor and although the Little White House and its environs was an immediate and ongoing attraction, it made sense to keep the two entities separate. That all changed, however, with the advent of the Salk vaccine. The hospital’s emphasis had to shift with polio’s gradual decline. Naturally, other forms of rehabilitation were embraced by the medical powers-that-be. Meanwhile, the state kept alive Georgia’s FDR history at the Little White House and eventually got into the rehab business itself with vocational rehab, and, unfortunately, kept it all separate after assuming control of the medical side from the foundation. As with many things at that level, politics probably got in the way of logic. With more than one department in charge at Warm Springs and elected officials coming and going, the merging of everything that could have been so beneficial never happened. Tourism was continued through the FDR story, but the much larger (and warmer) Warm Springs story never got its due and so never had a chance to enhance the ongoing rehab legacy and economic potential. Worst of all, the famous water was allowed to fade away—the very reason for (and name of) the place—a marketing gaff rarely committed at a location with such historic significance. With so much on their plate, I think many Georgia leaders didn’t want Warm Springs, but they also didn’t want to be responsible for its going away. It’s a shame the federal funding (and control) that was discussed never happened because the significance warranted support from that level. The state was never up to running a rural hospital no matter how famous, especially given ever-increasing competition in the medical marketplace, and, as always, visionaries were few and far between. I’m sure other states have endured similar missteps for similar reasons. In tough economic times, which state budgets almost always profess, common sense solutions are often missed even when obvious advantages far outweigh risks. It all becomes too political to handle.
3. Do we have a modern polio, that is, a disease that is wrecking lives and ruining human potential?
At one time, diabetes was called the new polio and a diabetes management program was even proposed at Warm Springs to renew its medical glory. Unfortunately, that idea came at a time when Warm Springs was more concerned with upgrading vocational rehabilitation as part of the labor department rather than branching into a new medical rehab future. And although cancer probably remains the disease we would like to conquer most, it does seem that the ongoing problems caused by a lifetime of diabetes probably most closely mirrors a life with polio and what we now call post-polio syndrome.
4. How has the social stigma of physical handicap changed since FDR’s struggle with polio?
There’s no doubt Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a trendsetter and one of the trends he clearly established through the creation of Warm Springs was bringing disability out into the open, where it could (and should) be dealt with honestly and fairly on a day-to-day basis. Obviously Warm Springs was way ahead of its time in the use of automatic doors, ramps and inclines, hand rails, accessible bathrooms, and even elevators. Warm Springs was ADA compliant fifty years before the actual act made such things mandatory. In the final twenty-one years of his life, FDR returned to Warm Springs repeatedly for his own restoration, but also because he wanted each and every Warm Springs patient to realize that disability should be no excuse to abandon one’s dreams. How else could you view a “handicapped” or “crippled” man who had achieved the nation’s highest office? He was (and is) a hero to the disability community. When the great debate was raging over whether or not to allow a statue of him in a wheelchair at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, DC, no less an authority and historian than Hugh Gallagher, a man with polio himself, famously proclaimed, “Don’t let them take our hero” in support of the statue.
5. What were you surprised to learn about FDR during the writing of the Warm Springs Story?
Perhaps my biggest surprises concerning Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to do with the what-might-have-beens that could have altered (for good or bad) the history of Warm Springs if FDR had never returned to politics, allowing his vision of Warm Springs to come to pass. With such a prominent, energetic, and charismatic man working constantly on Warm Springs rather than the economy, war, politics, and the nation’s future, imagine what he might have achieved for Warm Springs’s tourism and medical fronts. In fact, his documented plans for the place in lieu of all he accomplished as president and how famous he became make it even more of a head-scratcher that such things have been ignored by the generations since. Added to that was my realization of the marketing corners he was willing to cut and the truth he was willing to stretch to ensure survival of the place. He was, after all, a master of public relations, in his own words “one of America’s two greatest actors” (along with Orson Welles), and no place exemplified his talent for the well-placed comment (or con) more so than Warm Springs.
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