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#178 This Montpelier Seminary Graduate Was FDR’s Physical Therapist

Jeff Dobbin 200 Things about Norwich, Fun Facts & Stats

When Alice Lou Plastridge-Converse celebrated her 100th birthday in 1989, she was the oldest living Vermont College alumna, having received her diploma from the college’s predecessor institution Montpelier Seminary in 1908. She started working as a physical therapist in 1914, making valuable contributions in the treatment of polio in the days before vaccines were available. One of her patients in 1926 was a young man by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For much of her life, she wore a prized gold ring with a lapis stone that had been a gift from the future president.

Although she worked in the field for 75 years, Plastridge-Converse was not a graduate of any school of physical therapy. The reason was simple: she entered the field before there were such schools.

Born in Swanton, Vt., on June 20, 1889, Alice Lou graduated from Northfield (Vt.) High School in 1907, received her diploma from Montpelier Seminary in 1908, then continued her education at Mount Holyoke College. She went on to earn a degree from the New Haven (Conn.) Normal School of Gymnastics in 1913.

A summer course on the treatment of scoliosis at the Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in 1914 introduced her to the eminent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Robert W. Lovett. He was a mentor as she gained expertise in the treatment of polio patients. Starting as a junior gymnasium assistant in Dr. Lovett’s Boston office, she left Boston in 1917 at his urging to establish a physical therapy practice in Chicago. It was Dr. Lovett’s recommendation that brought her to FDR’s Hyde Park home in 1926.

For two months, Plastridge-Converse had a special assignment as a physical therapist for FDR. The president-to-be had been stricken with polio five years earlier and had lost the use of his legs. Plastridge-Converse was the first person to teach him to localize certain muscles.

Roosevelt spoke enthusiastically to Plastridge-Converse about the healing effects of the waters at the Georgia Warm Springs, and in 1927 he was instrumental in establishing the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation. It became a mecca for the treatment of polio patients. At FDR’s urging, Plastridge-Converse gave up her Chicago practice in 1930 to serve as director of physical therapy at Warm Springs. Her 20-year affiliation with the foundation included nine years as director of the graduate school of physical therapy.

Meanwhile, Plastridge-Converse was gaining a reputation as a polio specialist and traveling in the U.S. and abroad to study various methods of treatment. In 1945 she was part of a three-person “special medical mission” to Belgium, where a polio epidemic was causing concern. The team spent three weeks in the country, observing and making recommendations. Later, in recognition of their service, they were awarded the Belgian Golden Palm of the Order of the Crown.

Atypically for her generation, Plastridge-Converse continued her work in physical therapy after marrying in 1950. Over the next decade she would serve as an instructor in physical therapy at universities and hospitals in Texas, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida. In 1953 she was made a life member of the American Physical Therapy Association, and in 1955 she treated patients during a polio outbreak on Cape Cod, Mass. She was also listed in the first edition (1958-59) of Who’s Who Among American Women.

In 1985, at age 96, Plastridge-Converse was honored at Warm Springs for her “many contributions to [the] Georgia Warm Springs Foundation and the profession of physical therapy.” She stayed active until the end of her life. When the Record interviewed her on the occasion of her 100th birthday, she was still weaving baskets and helping friends with their physical therapy. Alice Lou Plastridge-Converse passed away in 1993 at the age of 103.

Adapted from an article that appeared in the Norwich Record in June 1989.