Prisoners of Time

The Misdiagnosis of FDR's 1921 Paralytic Illness

Here is a book you might be interested in.

Now, we all know that “FDR had polio”. We’ve heard it a million times.

In 1921, at age 39, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was struck by a serious illness that left his legs permanently paralyzed. FDR's illness was diagnosed by his doctors as "infantile paralysis" (paralytic polio), and that diagnosis was universally accepted.

It’s in all the history books. Countless movies and TV documentaries have told the tragic story of FDR’s paralysis from polio. Must be true, right? Well, it turns out probably not.

Over eight decades after FDR’s 1921 illness, Dr. Armond S. Goldman and his colleagues at UTMB Galveston discovered by carefully searching the original descriptions of the illness that a very different disease - Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) - nearly unknown in the US in 1921 - was the most likely cause of FDR’s illness.

Armond S. Goldman, MD

It’s pretty straightforward. Most of FDR’s symptoms were more typical of GBS than polio. They published some articles in the scientific literature spelling out why the cause was most likely GBS. As you can imagine, a great controversy ensued. The controversy continues to this day. Other doctors and historians had never even considered the possibility of GBS. Once they got over the shock, what do you think they did? You got it. They hauled out every argument they could gin up to try to defend “FDR had polio”.

I happen to know Dr. Goldman. Yes, he is my father-in-law. But I volunteered to write this review, because I’m familiar with the book and think many people might be interested in it.

“Prisoners of Time” tells the complete story of FDR's 1921 illness, how he nearly died, how his wife Eleanor saved his life, why FDR's doctors got the diagnosis wrong, the first clues that FDR did not have polio, how it was determined that FDR likely had GBS, why the polio misdiagnosis has persisted, and why getting the diagnosis correct matters.

Why the title “Prisoners of Time”? We are all “prisoners of time”, in that we only know what we know, are limited by our current knowledge and circumstances. FDR’s doctors were “prisoners of time” in the sense that they could only diagnose what they knew, and they were not familiar with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). They did the best they could, but they got the diagnosis wrong, and the misdiagnosis persisted (until recently).


Armond S. Goldman - Author

The book is written for the general reading public. Be warned that there is a fair amount of technical information concerning diseases and the body, and the book uses a math formula called “Bayesian analysis” to determine the odds that FDR had polio or GBS, based on his symptoms. While not totally “dry” by any means, “Prisoners of Time” is not “light reading”. However, I believe the technical terms / jargon and statistical concepts are explained in pretty clear English. The book is also fully referenced, in case you want to double-check anything. There are also a lot of pictures and illustrations.

The book also explains about polio and GBS, how they were discovered, how polio vaccines were developed, and how treatments were GBS were found. There are stories of famous people with the diseases, for example Itzhak Perlman with polio and Joseph Heller with GBS. Related to the controversy, there is a detailed presentation of arguments raised by those who still believe that FDR had polio. That part might make for heavy going, because there is a lot of detail. I think the book makes a persuasive argument that FDR had GBS, but you can read the book yourself and form your own opinion.

According to the foreword: "Prisoners of Time is the first complete telling of FDR’s 1921 illness. This book will appeal to those interested in FDR, medical diagnosis, controversy in the sciences, or just a real-life detective story."

From the authors: “The misdiagnosis of FDR’s illness is a case study of how doctors can only diagnose what they know, how millions of people can accept myth as fact, and how new research can correct the historical record. Readers are invited to enjoy the intriguing story and form their own conclusions, based on the evidence presented.”

About the authors: Armond S. Goldman, MD is a pediatrician, immunologist, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas. He has many awards for his clinical, teaching, and research accomplishments. He has published over 100 scientific articles. Daniel A. Goldman, MD, MPH is a physician, epidemiologist, and software developer.

You can get your copy on Amazon here >> has more information. Published in June 2017, the book has 331 pages and 54 illustrations.




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