The Forgotten Champion of Polio Victims the World Over
How Australian bush nurse Elizabeth Kenny eased the suffering of infantile paralysis patients and invented physical therapy
When I was a child in the 1960s, it was not uncommon to see people with braces on their legs, their mobility dependent upon canes or crutches. They were survivors of infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis, polio for short. Polio is a highly infectious, debilitating, and sometimes fatal disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the United States has been polio-free since 1979 due in large part to the polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk in the 1950s.
Salk’s vaccine was one of the significant medical breakthroughs of the 20th century, but it was of no use to polio victims. They needed an effective treatment for what is still an incurable disease. For that, many found relief from an unlikely source: an Australian bush nurse with no medical degree or formal training. Her name was Elizabeth Kenny, but the world would come to know her as “Sister Kenny.”
“She had treated more cases than anyone else in the world — she gave the precise number, 7,828 — and no one else was in the position to speak with her authority. She is now almost forgotten by the world.” — virologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet
Injury leads to inspiration
Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia in 1880. Her parents were farmers. At the age of 17, Kenny fell from a horse and broke her wrist. She convalesced at the home of Aeneas McDonnell, a medical doctor in Toowoomba.
During her recuperation, Kenny became interested in how muscles work. Dr. McDonnell allowed her to study his anatomy books and model skeleton. Since skeletal models reserved for medical students, she constructed her own to continue her studies when she returned home.
A series of jobs followed. She taught Sunday school and music and had a successful stint as an agricultural broker. Then, while working in the kitchen of a midwife’s cottage hospital, Kenny decided that she wanted a career in medicine. She used the money she’d earned from her brokerage job to pay a local woman to make her a nurse’s uniform and went to work as a bush nurse. She eventually opened a cottage hospital at Clifton, providing convalescent and midwifery services.
The first polio patients
In 1911, Kenny encountered two sick children who appeared to be suffering from polio. Having no formal training to diagnose their condition, she sent a wire to her former doctor and mentor Aeneas McDonnell describing their symptoms and asking for his advice. McDonnell wired back, “ “Infantile paralysis. No known treatment. Do the best you can with the symptoms presenting themselves.”
The standard treatment for polio victims at the time was to immobilize their affected limbs in plaster casts. But Kenny decided to try something different. Noting the stiffness of their muscles, she applied hot compresses followed by passive movement of the affected areas of their bodies. According to Victor Cohn’s 1976 biography, Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors, the children recovered without any severe after-effects. Her process of muscle rehabilitation is credited by some to be the basis of modern-day physical therapy.
The Kenny Method
In 1915, Elizabeth Kenny convinced the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps to accept her services as a nurse aboard troopships during the First World War despite her lack of formal credentials. In 1917, the army promoted her to the rank of Sister, which is the Nursing Corps’ equivalent of a First Lieutenant. She continued to use this title throughout her life. In interviews with the Australian press during the 1930s, Kenny stated that she further developed her methods for treating polio by attending soldiers suffering from meningitis during the war.
When the war ended, Kenny returned to Australia and continued to work as a nurse. She treated victims of the influenza pandemic of 1918, eventually settling in the rural town of Nobby in Queensland. In 1932, Queensland suffered a severe polio outbreak. With the help of local people, Sister Kenny set up a rudimentary polio clinic on the grounds of a hotel in Townsville. Although her methods were controversial among members of the medical establishment, her success with patients led to the creation of several Kenny Clinics throughout the state and eventually throughout Australia.
Kenny’s reputation as healer soon spread beyond her own country, and her techniques gained increasing popularity throughout the world. Unfortunately, her lack of a degree was still an obstacle to the acceptance of her practices by the medical establishment.
Sister Kenny’s story was a compelling one, however, and in due time, Hollywood came calling. In 1946, RKO made the film Sister Kenny starring Rosalind Russell in the title role. The script, loosely based on Kenny’s book with Martha Ostenso And They Shall Walk, took some liberties.
As was typical for the time, the screenwriters inserted a fictional romance and altered the facts to boost the film’s marketability. Sister Kenny was not a financial success for RKO, but Rosalind Russell won the Golden Globe for Best Actress, and the film helped promote the real Sister Kenny’s reputation.
Polio cases skyrocket in post-WWII America
In 1946, there were 25,000 reported cases of polio in the United States. By 1952, the number of annual cases had grown to 52,000. Parents across the country were terrified because the most common victims of polio were children.
Some patients were so severely affected that they had to use tank ventilators known as “iron lungs” to breathe. Many of them stayed in these devices for months or even years. The isolation that was a part of this life-saving treatment was an added burden to patients and their families.
Several famous people who were victims of polio in the 1940s and 1950s credit Sister Kenny’s techniques for helping them recover. These include actors Alan Alda, who contracted polio at the age of seven, Martin Sheen, who was bedridden for a year, and Canadian singer Joni Mitchell. In Mitchell’s case, the treatment was so successful, according to ex-husband Chuck Mitchell in the book Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller, she was able to run up and downstairs afterward without complaint.
Thanks to the vaccine pioneered by Jonas Salk and a global eradication initiative launched by the World Health Organization in 1988, polio is extremely rare today. According to the WHO, reported cases of polio worldwide dropped to just 33 in 2018. Sister Kenny’s treatment techniques continue to be effective, however, and today’s patients still benefit from her lasting legacy.
Elizabeth Kenny died of Parkinson’s disease on November 30, 1952, in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia.