Elizabeth Kenny (1886-1952) was an Australian nursing sister who pioneered a method of treatment for infantile paralysis. Her determination and persistence helped to focus efforts on finding a cure or a preventive vaccine for polio.
Elizabeth Kenny was born at Warialda in New South Wales, the daughter of an Irish immigrant veterinary surgeon. She trained as a nurse in a private hospital in Sydney, graduating in 1911. After a period of bush nursing in the Queensland Outback, she served during World War I as a nurse to the Australian military forces, caring for the wounded on hospital ships. Her inventive talent emerged during this time, and she patented an improved stretcher for use in the field.
After the war Sister Kenny's attention was attracted to the treatment of poliomyelitis and cerebral palsy. A polio epidemic in Queensland in 1933 led her to concentrate her efforts in that field, and she opened a clinic in Townsville which was granted public recognition and government support the next year. From 1934 to 1937 she helped establish new clinics in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, and, after a journey to Britain in 1937, in Surrey.
Sister Kenny's method was in opposition to the current orthodoxy, which generally called for the complete immobilization of polio patients, many of whom were placed in heavy splints. She maintained that the key to the disease lay in the muscular framework of the body rather than in the nervous or spinal systems; and her forcefulness and popularity inevitably made her into something of a cause célèbre. A royal commission was appointed in 1935 to examine her ideas, and when it reported in 1938, the verdict of the commissioners was unfavorable. About the same time in London a committee of medical experts contradicted her theories, although public opinion remained sympathetic.
Sister Kenny arrived in the United States in 1940 and was received enthusiastically. Her lectures in Minneapolis were given much publicity, and in 1941 a medical committee of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis declared itself in agreement with her basic practice and approach. She became a guest instructor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1942, and the Elizabeth Kenny Institute at Minneapolis was founded. Clinics using her treatment sprang up throughout the United States, and she was showered with degrees and approval.
In 1950 a special act of Congress was passed which enabled Sister Kenny to enter and leave the United States as she wished—a historic honor shared only with the Marquis de Lafayette. Although she claimed that over 85 percent of her more than 7,000 patients at Minneapolis recovered as against 13 percent treated in the more conservative manner, medical opinion remained divided. She had great powers of persuasion and a lively appreciation of the value of publicity. There seems, however, to be little doubt that her courage, tenacity, and independence helped greatly to focus public attention on the problems of polio victims and led to an improvement of facilities available to assist in their therapy and rehabilitation.
Sister Kenny died in Toowoomba, Queensland, on Nov. 30, 1952. Among her books should be noted Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia: Methods Used for the Restoration of Function (1937) and The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in the Acute Stage (1941).
Further Reading on Elizabeth Kenny
Sister Kenny's own account of her work and goals are in her And They Shall Walk (1943), written with Martha Ostenso, and The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis and Its Treatment (1943), written in collaboration with J. F. Pohl. A biography is Maurice Colbeck, Sister Kenny of the Outback (1965).
Additional Biography Sources
Cohn, Victor, Sister Kenny: the woman who challenged the doctors, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975.
Kenny, Elizabeth, And they shall walk, New York: Arno Press, 1980, 1943.