Health in America
Health in America
Health in America


Then Manhattan Borough President Robert F. Wagner ceremoniously changes the street sign at West 43rd Street and Broadway from Times Square to “Dimes Square” in honor of the March of Dimes anti-polio campaign, c. 1950

In 1904, as tuberculosis threatened the lives and health of millions of Americans, the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (now the American Lung Association) was created to stamp out the disease. Three years later, a tuberculosis hospital in Delaware found itself in debt and borrowed an idea from Denmark to sell Christmas Seals at a penny apiece to raise money to close a debt of $300. The Christmas Seals program raised $3,000 and medical fundraising was born. By 1920, Christmas Seals had raised more than $3.6 million to fight tuberculosis, and brought greater public attention to the cause.

Celebrity involvement in fundraising is now common, but the first person to use his fame to bring attention to a disease was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1926, five years after he contracted polio, Roosevelt founded the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to provide therapeutic water treatments for polio victims. Short of funds during the Great Depression, FDR raised money for the Foundation through the President's Birthday Ball. In 1938, alarmed by an increase in polio epidemics, he created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and the March of Dimes campaign to finance it. The dimes, initially sent to the White House, eventually paid for the research that led to a vaccine and the near elimination of polio from the planet. By emphasizing small donations and utilizing modern techniques of advertising and public relations, the March of Dimes revolutionized medical fundraising.

Elvis Presley and 1955 March of Dimes poster child, Mary Kosloski, pose on Presley’s 23rd birthday at his home in Memphis, 1958.

Fundraising is now a huge source of revenue and outreach to combat many diseases. A notable fundraising event is Jerry Lewis's Muscular Dystrophy Association telethon. Today, runs, walks and bicycle rides compete to raise funds and the profile of sponsoring organizations. The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, for example, has raised more than $1.5 billion for breast cancer research, treatment and education since it began in 1982. However, some fault celebrity fundraising because it tends to focus on specific, well-publicized causes, sidelining other less well-known diseases.

City College of New York alumnus Albert Salk administers a polio vaccination..
Participants in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer, Boston, 2005.
Marie La Guardia with March of Dimes Grand Marshall Leslie Strom in the I.L.G.W.U. office, 1955.