Franklin Delano Roosevelt – did the president have epilepsy?

  • February 24, 2022
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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, often known by his initials FDR, is widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States. The only leader to be voted into office four times in a row, Roosevelt led the country through two crucial periods of the 20th Century: the Great Depression and World War Two.

But did you know that FDR may have also had epilepsy? Research indicates that the 32nd president of the United States had many symptoms of epileptic seizures - although this has never been officially confirmed. Here is everything you need to know about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his possible epilepsy.

The life of Franklin D Roosevelt

FDR was born on January 30th, 1882, in Hyde Park, NY. Born into a prosperous family, he went to Harvard University before studying law at Columbia. After finishing his studies, Roosevelt entered politics and was first elected to the US Senate in 1910 on a Democratic Party ticket.

In 1921, FDR’s life changed forever when he became a victim to polio - a disease which left him reliant on a wheelchair for much of the rest of his life. Despite these challenges he continued to work in politics.

In 1929, the Great Depression struck the US, and millions of people were left without work. In the 1932 elections, FDR's Democrats won a huge majority and Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a set of policies designed to expand the state and help millions of people get back into work. It was in his 1933 inaugural address that he made perhaps his most enduring and famous speech, reminding Americans they had “nothing to fear, but fear itself”.  

After the New Deal, the US economy bounced back in the 1930s and FDR remained a hugely popular president. The Second World War broke out in Europe in 1939 and, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, FDR took the United States into the war on the side of the Allies. The USA played a decisive role in combating fascism in Europe and Japanese expansion. Towards the end of the war, FDR also played a big role in creating the United Nations. He died in 1945 of a brain hemorrhage, just before the end of WWII.

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Did FDR have epilepsy?

It is not possible to say for certain that Franklin D Roosevelt had epilepsy. Research suggests that he seems to have had complex partial seizures. Reports at the time say he would lose his train of thought and stare blankly for a few moments. These episodes certainly sound like they could have been seizures, and they may have developed after he contracted polio in 1921.

We cannot say for sure that FDR did have epilepsy because no definitive evidence has been published so far.

Dig deeper: Read our series on the history of epilepsy

An inspiring president

Franklin D Roosevelt continues to be seen as one of the greatest ever presidents of the USA. His leadership and groundbreaking policies meant he remained popular until his death in 1945. His example also shows that people with physical and neurological disabilities can achieve extraordinary things, serving as an inspiration to everyone. 

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