Profiles in Nursing

Sister Elizabeth Kenny, Physical Therapy Pioneer

This nurse started out working in the Australian bush, went on to pioneer treatment methods for polio patients.

By Suzanne Ridgway
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Sister Elizabeth Kenny was not a nun. She worked in nursing for decades and revolutionized the treatment for polio, but she did not have a degree. She defied doctors everywhere who insisted on treating infantile paralysis with casts, splints, and immobility. Beloved by thousands of parents whose children were helped by her methods, she became a celebrity. Rosalind Russell starred in the story of her life, a 1946 movie called, And They Shall Walk.     

Born in Australia, Elizabeth Kenny became a bush nurse in Queensland around 1910, although she lacked any formal nursing education. She tended the sick and delivered babies in the rural districts where medical professionals were scarce.     When she encountered her first cases of polio, Kenny treated a stricken child’s contracted muscles with moist heat compresses to ease the limbs back into their normal positions. Although the standard treatment of the day involved immobilizing affected limbs, Kenny found that her methods worked to prevent deformity and the atrophy of muscles.        

She became an Army nurse when Australia entered World War I and acquired the title “Sister” (the equivalent of 1st Lieutenant), a designation she used for the rest of her life. During the war she worked with meningitis patients suffering paralysis and deformities, employing the same treatment methods that she used with polio patients.     

When she returned to Australia, she encountered a new type of patient: the person who had been crippled from the standard immobilization treatment for polio. Kenny developed a regimen of hot compresses and physical therapy to “re-educate” the muscles. She taught the patients to reconnect with their dormant muscles, training them to again move the muscles by themselves.    

Physical therapy was hardly utilized as a medical discipline at this time. Kenny used a combination of known techniques, tidbits she learned from doctors, and her own experience. Her work in a clinic was successful enough for her to obtain government funding to open several clinics. But the medical establishment in Australia opposed her innovations vigorously and she feared she would never be able to make a difference there.   In 1940 she came to the United States, where she treated patients, lectured, and demonstrated as a guest instructor at Minneapolis General Hospital. Her techniques were written about in American newspapers and magazines.     

When the Journal of the American Medical Association endorsed her methods of stimulating rather than immobilizing the muscles in the early stages of polio, everything changed.Victor Cohn’s biography, Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors, describes the impact of JAMA’s approval as, “a revolution almost unprecedented in medical history.” He writes, “All over the country, doctors and hospitals switched from splinting and inactivity to heat and activity…It happened almost overnight.” After decades of trying to win validation from the medical community, she had succeeded at last.     

After managing the Elizabeth Kenny Institute and the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation for several years, she retired home to Toowoomba in 1951. She died there from complications of a stroke in November 1952. Although polio has been virtually eliminated thanks to vaccines, Elizabeth Kenny’s work in re-educating muscles became the basis for modern physical therapy.

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