The Case of the Well-Known Woman With Unexplained Anemia

Albert Lowenfels, MD


September 09, 2010

Brief Biography

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was born in New York City into a prominent and powerful family, which included her uncle Theodore who was president of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Her mother died when she was only 10 years old, and her adored but alcoholic father died 2 years later. She was raised by a strict grandmother, Mary Hall, before being sent to a boarding school in England where she became proficient in languages and history.

Upon returning to the United States in her late teens, she performed social work in the squalid slums of New York City and it is possible that at this time she was exposed to and became infected with tuberculosis.

In 1904, at age 20 she married her 23-year-old fifth cousin, Franklin, in a ceremony that included President Theodore Roosevelt, who acted as a substitute father for the young bride. The marriage was initially opposed by her wealthy but domineering mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who asked that the couple wait a year before announcing the engagement. The marriage was fruitful, eventually producing 6 children, 3 of whom became politicians.

In 1921, Franklin became paralyzed with what was believed at the time to have been poliomyelitis, but could possibly have been a Guillain-Barré syndrome -- a much rarer disease, which had been described only a few years before Roosevelt became paralyzed.[5] Eleanor devoted herself to the care of her stricken husband.

Eleanor and her young children were frightened and devastated when Franklin suddenly became acutely ill with fever and paralysis, which left him paraplegic for the remainder of his life. It was during this period that Eleanor became a valuable political ally, often substituting for her husband at public appearances. She was especially helpful during his election to governor of New York State, and during his successful presidential bid in 1932.

Unlike many first ladies, Eleanor assumed an active political and social role when Franklin assumed the presidency in March of 1933. She traveled extensively, continued to lecture, often for socially progressive causes, and when Marion Anderson was forbidden to sing at Washington's Constitutional Hall, Eleanor helped to arrange another venue -- the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. She continued her national and international activities after Franklin's death; President Truman referred to her as "First Lady to the World."

Her career included being first lady from 1933 to 1945 -- longer than any other president's wife, delegate to the UN general assembly between 1945 and 1952, and writing a syndicated newspaper column, "My Day" during 1935-1962. She traveled extensively, including visits to the South Pacific during World War II and a visit to Russia in 1957 where she interviewed Nikita Khrushchev. She was the author of several books, including Women in Politics, The Moral Basis of Democracy, and Race, Religion and Prejudice. In addition to all these activities, she felt obligated to answer her personal correspondence, often as many as 50 letters a day.

Figure 1. Eleanor Roosevelt. Photograph taken in 1943 at Pearl Harbor.

The Roosevelt marriage was productive and presumably happy, but almost broke up in 1918 when Eleanor discovered Franklin's affair with Lucy Mercer, Eleanor's personal secretary. For the sake of the children and Franklin's political career they avoided divorce, but the affair had a lasting effect upon their marriage. They remained friends and partners but no longer had a true marital relationship. When Franklin died, Eleanor was in Washington, but Lucy Mercer had been with Franklin in Warm Springs, Georgia.

Throughout her life, Eleanor remained devoted to women's issues, encouraging women through her books, newspaper articles, and her personal actions to be more than just housewives. She held her own press conferences, to which she invited only female journalists. Therefore it is surprising that she opposed the Equal Rights Amendment when it was proposed in 1972. Her feelings about women's strength can be summed up when she said: "A woman is a like a tea bag -- you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water."

Although reserved, Roosevelt had a quiet sense of humor. When commenting about how she felt about having a rose named after her, she remarked: "I was very flattered...but not pleased with the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall."

Roosevelt was the first president's wife to travel by airplane, and, on one occasion, her pilot was the famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart. In the years after Franklin's death she traveled extensively, earning her the nickname "Eleanor Everywhere."

After Eleanor died, she was buried at Hyde Park next to her husband.

Figure 2. Tombstone marking grave of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt in the Rose Garden, Hyde Park, New York.


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