Sister Elizabeth Kenny Fought Polio with Physical Therapy
Sister Elizabeth Kenny
State Library of Queensland
As a young nurse, sister Elizabeth Kenny developed an unconventional polio treatment that avoided its crippling effects and helped patients fully recover.
A young nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, working in the Outback of Australia in 1909, found that several children suffered from a disease that she couldn’t diagnose. She wired a description of the symptoms to the hospital at Queensland and asked what kind of treatment she should give to the children. When the answer came, it wasn’t too encouraging. The disease was infantile paralysis or polio, and there was no known treatment. “Do the best you can,” said the head doctor at Queensland in his wire.
Sister Elizabeth Kenny Works in the Outback
Sister Elizabeth Kenny did the best she could and that best was eventually studied by the finest medical brains in the world. Her methods of dealing with infantile paralysis laid the foundations for the theories and practices of physical therapy.
Elizabeth was born in Warialda, New South Wales in 1886, and graduated from St. Ursela’s College in 1902. She became a nurse in the Australian bush country when she was still a young girl and was loved for her dedication to her patients. The reason she didn’t know about polio was that the disease occurred much less frequently in Australia than in the United States.
Sister Kenny Deals with Infantile Paralysis
Aeneas McDonnell, the head doctor at Queensland told Elizabeth to do her best so the sturdy Scotch-Irish Sister, as the English call a chief nurse, proceeded to relieve the children’s pain in her matter of fact way. She noticed that in the early stages of polio, the victims suffered from muscular spasms and she determined to relieve them. She tore blankets into strips, soaked them in hot water, wrung them out and packed them around tortured legs and arms. She kept up these hot pack or foment treatments until the spasms had disappeared and the child’s flesh had a rosy, healthy glow.
In 1910, a year after the polio epidemic, Sister Kenny was granted a leave of absence for some rest. Instead of vacationing, she traveled to the Queensland hospital and met the head doctor who had telegraphed her to “do her best” for the polio victims. When he discovered that all of them had recovered, he begged Sister Kenny to show him what she had done.
Sister Kenny Practices Her Techniques at Queensland Hospital
Dr. McDonnell hurried her to a ward where doctors and nurses were working on several new polio cases. To the astonishment of the attendants, the Dr. McDonnell ordered the young nurse from the bush country to get busy. Sister Kenny quickly went to work. She stripped off the splints and bandages that kept the victims rigid. The doctors had been using splints on the theory that they kept sick, contracting muscles from distorting healthy muscles. The use of this splint method was widespread. For Sister Kenny to remove these splints was revolutionary. Only Dr. McDonnell’s presence kept the attendants from stopping her by force.
Calmly she tore blankets into strips, converting them into warm, wet packs called foments, for the children’s arms and legs. In three or four days the patients were free from pain while with splints or casts, the pain lasted for weeks and months. Then while the polio was still in its acute stages, Sister Kenny began the massage and exercise she had used the bush country. As the children improved, she persuaded them to move their own muscles. Once again, her methods worked. With this second success, Sister Kenny was prepared to pit her unconventional treatment against the more conventional, widely accepted use of splints.
Some Doctors Disagree with Sister Kenny’s Methods
Sister Kenny did have a battle on her hands. Some earnest Australian doctors opposed her. They felt that the risk of removing the splints from the limbs of the children was too great. Where one child might be helped, another might be injured for life, they agreed. Neither were they convinced of the importance of treating the muscle spasms which had gotten very little attention as part of the polio progression.
On the other hand, Sister Kenny did have allies in her fight. Dr. McDonnell was one of the first to officially acknowledge that Sister Kenny could teach the medical progression something about treating polio. He admitted that her methods were radical, but they worked. They didn’t cure the disease, but they did offer relief from pain and in most cases, freedom from crippling.
Sister Kenny Desires to Work Within the Medical Profession
The opposition she got from some of the doctors didn’t shake Sister Kenny’s faith in her methods or her conviction that she had to work through the medical profession. Her friends urged her to operate independently of the medical profession, but she couldn’t agree to that. Her training as a nurse had taught her a respect for the profession, and she also knew that her treatment worked only when applied in the first stages of polio. In order to help the children she had to reach them through the doctors that their parents consulted. All that Sister Kenny asked was that the doctors observe her methods and judge for themselves.
Until the outbreak of the First World War,Sister Kenny demonstrated her method anywhere, anytime. When war broke out over the world, she became a nurse on a troop transport ship and turned her innovative talents to inventing a transport stretcher for moving wounded men without jolting. Another much appreciated invention of Sister Kenny’s was a camp –like device to keep the bunks of the injured men aboard a rolling transport ship steady. Later, the royalties from these inventions helped her to live while she went on with her crusade on behalf of polio stricken children.
Sister Kenny Expands Her Crusade to the United States
After World War I, Sister Kenny returned to Queensland and set up a clinic. Her repeated success in her battle against polio won her recognition throughout Australia and the government supported Kenny clinics in eight large hospitals. In Queensland, where the first Kenny clinic was founded, the citizens dedicated an Elizabeth Kenny Park. There, in a grove of trees, the townspeople built a home for the sister when she came home to rest. To the Australian children, the Sister was hero and a friend and in Queensland schools, the day was always begun with a prayer for Sister Kenny.
With her work in Australia well established and several young student nurses well versed in the Kenny method, Sister Kenny was anxious to expand her crusade. She felt that she could be of help in the United States and Canada which together had more cases of polio than the rest of the world combined.
Sister Kenny wanted her campaign in the United States and Canada to have scientific sponsorship, so she waited until that sponsorship came. That happened in 1940, when one of the chief surgeons of the Mayo Clinic invited Sister Kenny to demonstrate her methods at the University of Minnesota Medical School and at the Minneapolis General Hospital. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis would underwrite the cost of the technical work and the assistant nurses. Sister Kenny felt that this was a green light and she and her devoted staff traveled to the United States.
Sister Kenny Organizes the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota
In Minneapolis, and in Little Rock, Arkansas, during an epidemic and in many other centers Nurse Kenny produced remarkable results. About 80 percent of her patients recovered completely. These results were enough to convince laymen, but doctors still asked pointed questions. They interrogated Sister Kenny most about the use of her active exercise program. They admitted that she could persuade children to make their ailing arms and legs move, but they attributed this to her strong personality. More than one of her critics suggested that she hypnotized the children into moving. Another person might not be able to do this and a treatment to be effective must be effective in the hands of any trained person,.
To answer this criticism, Sister Kenny turned to the records of the Australian clinical nurses trained in her methods. They had been as successful as Sister Kenny herself. They had to undergo a stiff, two year course in the Kenny method, but once trained they practiced on their own. Sister Kenny felt it would benefit hundreds of young American nurses to take the same training course. In 1942, she organized the Elizabeth Kenny institute in Minneapolis for the purpose of spreading her methods throughout the United States and she served as its director until 1949, when she became a consultant.
Hollywood Makes a Movie About Sister Kenny’s Life
In order to establish a broader public base, Sister Kenny agreed to let Hollywood make a film about her life, but with two stipulations. She insisted that none of the facts would be distorted and that Rosalind Russell must play the part of Sister Kenny. Sister Kenny believed that Miss Russell could best portray the vigorous common sense of the youthful Elizabeth Kenny without glamour or over sophistication. Before the picture went into production, Sister Kenny conferred at length with the producer, director, and star. Their sympathetic understanding made her feel that the movie would be a force for good. Hollywood released Sister Kenny in 1946 and Rosalind Russell earned an academy award nomination for her work in the film.
The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Recognizes Sister Kenny’s Work
Sister Kenny carried on her crusade against polio. Her methods also aroused controversy among some American doctors, but the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis recognized her work. She felt that she was still operating within the medical cooperation that she considered so necessary.
When she died in 1952, Sister Elizabeth Kenny’s friends the world over mourned the passing of a friend and a healer.
Victor Cohn, Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors, University of Minnesota Press, 1976.
Wade Alexander, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, Maverick Heroine of the Polio Treatment Controversy, Central Queensland University Press, 2003
John Pohl, M.D. in collaboration with Elizabeth Kenny, The Kenny concept of Infantile Paralysis and its Treatment, 1943
Martha Ostenso,And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, Ayer Publishers, 1980
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