A Lasting Legacy: The Martin Family and March of Dimes

 

 

The history of March of Dimes is interwoven with the Martin family, beginning with Paul Martin Sr., former Minister of Health and Welfare, and for whom the charity’s giving society is named.  Paul Martin Sr. is best known for making the extremely difficult decision of approving the polio vaccine for distribution in Canada, against enormous odds.  His bravery saved thousands of lives and helped stop an epidemic that had left thousands of children and adults with severe disabilities.

But many people are unaware of the Martin family’s personal history with polio.  As March of Dimes heads into its 60th anniversary, two members of the Martin family, former Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Paul Martin, and his eldest son, Paul W. Martin shared their thoughts on the family’s legacy, how polio has touched their lives and the importance of March of Dimes.

The Right Honourable Paul Martin was eight years old, at the family’s cottage near Lake Erie when he became sick, experiencing a pain he describes as "feeling like I had a plate in my stomach."  His mother, already fearing the polio epidemics that had been sweeping through the province, rushed the young Paul to the hospital in nearby Windsor, where the family received the diagnosis that most terrified people in the 1940s and 50s – Paul had polio.

March of Dimes:
Do you remember having polio as a child?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
I am never sure of my memories as a child, whether they are actual memories, or remembering what I have been told.  But I do remember getting sick.  I was in a ward with about thirty other children.  I remember jumping on my bed, and an iron lung was wheeled into the room.  The boy in the bed next to me said, “You had better stop that, because that is where you are going to end up.”  I remember being quite lonely, my parents were not allowed in the room, and I remember seeing them standing at the door, not able to come in.  And the one thing I will never forget is that there was a wonderful young nurse, I can’t remember her name now, but I will never forget, she spent time with me, and I was feeling pretty lonely and then one day she didn’t come in.  I asked another nurse where she was and was told it was her day off.  About twenty minutes later this nurse walked in – she had come to the hospital on her day off to visit me.  I never forgot that.

March of Dimes (to Paul W. Martin):
Do you remember your father telling you anything about his experiences having polio?

Paul W. Martin:
Yes, but only briefly.  I think it was something his generation didn’t talk about very much. But attending the event (Paul W. Martin attended March of Dimes’ Ability and Beyond Gala dinner on behalf of the family), I really learned more about our connection with polio and it has sparked my interest and I want to know more.

March of Dimes (to The Right Honourable Paul Martin):
How long did it take for you to recover?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
Well, I missed almost a year of school,I know I was not allowed to play football, and I do know I clearly disobeyed this edict. I also remember that I had a softball that I loved. It was missing the cover, and it fell into the river and I was very upset about losing it.  My mother had been told by the doctor that it was very important not to upset me.  The next morning the softball was on the porch.  I didn’t realize until much later that she had bought a new ball and taken the cover off and left it for me to find – so I wouldn’t be upset.  But I also knew that the doctor had told my parents not to let me become upset, and a child that is not allowed to be upset can become insufferable, and then one day I did something.   I must have been about ten, and she blew her cork, and that was when I knew I had recovered.

March of Dimes:
Switching subjects, do you remember when your father was making the decision to move forward with the vaccination campaign?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
I was quite young, but yes, I do remember.  My father travelled a lot, so when he was home, he really made an effort to be with me and my sister.   I remember that weekend he was very tense; I think I had knocked something over in his study and he lit into me.  I went to my mother, and she told me that my father had a very big decision to make.  I know he agonized over that weekend, especially because some American children had died receiving the vaccine.  He determined that it wasn’t the vaccine itself that was at fault, he had the confidence in Connaught Laboratories (Connaught Laboratories was the Canadian manufacturer of the polio vaccine).  And even though the Prime Minister at the time Mr. St. Laurent was dubious it was the right decision.  And we talked about it many years later and he told me it was the single most difficult decision he has ever made in his life.

March of Dimes:
How do you think the fact that both you and your father had polio affected him and his decision to push forward with the vaccine campaign?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
The fact that my father had polio was the driving force behind his decision to go into politics.  He was from a very poor family in Pembroke.  After polio he was paralyzed on one side had trouble with one arm and one eye, his brother used to pull him around on an old sleigh. Having had polio made him want to be Minister of Health, made him advocate for universal healthcare, it is why he is known as the “Father of Universal Healthcare.”

March of Dimes:
What role has March of Dimes played in your family’s life?

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
My father was very close to March of Dimes, for him it was the ultimate charitable endeavour.  I remember going to hear him speak at a March of Dimes event in Windsor. He was so involved because polio and March of Dimes had left such a mark on both his and my life.

Paul W. Martin:
For me, the importance of March of Dimes has always been what they do now to help people with disabilities.  Even though polio touched my family’s life in such a profound way, it always seemed to be something that happened in the past.  For my generation, it seems like something like the black plague, a historical disease.  So it is a great compliment to the March of Dimes that my generation knows them for their work on behalf of people with disabilities.

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
The extraordinary thing, is that for my generation, my father’s generation, and I would suspect even my grandfather’s generation, there was no such thing as a school without one or two kids in class with braces because of polio.  It was just a fact of life.   I remember friends put up with tremendous suffering and pain, and being told they just had to deal with it.  So it is extraordinary that for my sons’ generation, they know little of this. They haven’t experienced it. Thank Heaven.

Paul W. Martin:
We are happy about the success of March of Dimes.  I know my grandfather would be so touched that the March of Dimes Giving Society is named in his honour.

The Right Honourable Paul Martin:
The March of Dimes has always been an integral part of Canada’s response to need and disability. As polio was beaten back, March of Dimes didn’t stop providing support, but recognized that needs still existed for people that had disabilities, first from polio, and then for anyone with a disability. It is really a great tribute to March of Dimes that it realized it was not only the cause that needed to be addressed, but the consequence.  It is important to support the March of Dimes in its great work.


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