Profiles in Nursing

Sister Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952), Controversial Australian Polio Treatment Reformer

Was this controversial Australian nurse a hero or a hoax?

To her admirers, “Sister Kenny” was a crusader, challenging a reactionary medical establishment’s preconceptions about one of her era’s most feared diseases. To many physicians, she was a dangerous, ignorant quack. The real story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny is even more remarkable than the Hollywood movie it later became.

Unregistered Nurse

Today, any nurse who rises to international prominence usually has a lengthy list of degrees and certifications. Elizabeth Kenny never even attended high school and had little or no formal training as a nurse. (At various times, she offered contradictory accounts of her training, none of them verifiable.)

Kenny was born in Warialda, in the Australian state of New South Wales. Her family subsequently moved to Nobby, a small town in southern Queensland. According to Kenny, she began her nursing career there while still a teenager, working as an unpaid “bush nurse” for rural patients. Her mentor was Aeneas McDonnell, a surgeon in the city of Toowoomba with whom she would sometimes consult by telegraph.

Queensland introduced nursing registration in 1912, but Kenny never became a registered nurse. That didn’t stop her from practicing professionally, sometimes with McDonnell vouching for her. From 1913 to 1915, she even ran her own small hospital.

Despite her lack of credentials, Kenny enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) in 1915, become a staff nurse (equivalent to a second lieutenant). She was later promoted to sister, a rank equivalent to a first lieutenant. Although her later stories of being wounded by shrapnel on special assignment in France aren’t substantiated by her military records, much of her service was as a transport nurse on ships returning wounded soldiers to Australia, perilous duty in itself.

After her discharge in 1919, Kenny returned to Nobby and worked as a home health nurse, still calling herself “sister” (then a common honorific for trained nurses in British Commonwealth countries). She also tried her hand as an inventor, patenting a novel type of ambulance stretcher in 1927.

Sister Kenny vs. Polio

Sister Kenny vs. PolioIn 1932, Kenny turned her attention to infantile paralysis, a viral infection more properly known as paralytic poliomyelitis. Even today, polio is incurable. Although only a small percentage of cases are symptomatic, the disease is highly contagious in unvaccinated populations and its effects can be devastating, potentially including temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.

Over the years, Kenny developed her own ideas about polio and how to treat it. Most contemporary doctors recommended immobilizing paralyzed limbs, which could leave patients bedridden or confined to heavy, cumbersome braces. Kenny argued that a regimen of hot compresses, stretching, massage and assisted exercise could reduce pain and even restore patients’ mobility.

The “Kenny method” was based on a fundamental misconception: While some researchers of the time had already correctly surmised that polio paralysis was neurological, Kenny believed the problem was a muscular one that could be corrected through “muscle reeducation.”

Whatever the flaws in her theories (which were based on observation and intuition rather than scientific study of anatomy or disease processes), some patients insisted that Kenny’s painful therapeutic treatments had lasting benefits. Kenny later claimed an astounding 80 percent recovery rate.

Many physicians responded derisively, calling Kenny a quack and a crackpot. However, her efforts garnered considerable public support, leading to the establishment of “Kenny clinics” at a number of Australian and English hospitals.

American Heroine

An invitation from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., brought Kenny to the U.S. in 1940. Minneapolis General Hospital allowed her to open a polio treatment ward there, and by 1943, she had established her own institute. (It survives today as the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute.)

Nursing Education

Over the next few years, physicians cautiously embraced Kenny’s methods for polio treatment, though not her flawed theories of why they worked. Her professional reputation remained checkered, not helped by her stubborn resistance to any criticism, but her work with polio patients soon made her a popular celebrity.

Kenny published an autobiography in 1943, And They Shall Walk (cowritten with Martha Ostenso), which RKO adapted as a romanticized 1946 biopic, Sister Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell. Kenny received a host of honors and awards, including several honorary degrees. A 1951 Gallup poll named her the most admired woman in America.

By then, Parkinson’s disease had greatly hampered Kenny’s ability to work, so she retired to Australia in 1951. She died on Nov. 30, 1952, only months before Jonas Salk, M.D., announced his development of the polio vaccine.

Intuition or Science?

Sister Kenny’s success in promoting her unorthodox treatment approach was astounding, especially given her lack of professional bona fides, and surviving patients still remember her warmly. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, orthodox treatments for polio were almost as grim as the disease; Sister Kenny’s methods were painful, but offered the promise of improvement and recovery. Patients who did recover saw her as a miracle worker.

Nonetheless, the effectiveness of the Kenny method remains in doubt. Her physical therapy techniques were sound, but whether those techniques actually helped polio patients is less clear. Some cases of paralytic polio resolve on their own, and Kenny’s methods were never subjected to controlled clinical trials.

Ultimately, Kenny’s success had less to do with the clinical value of her methods than with the hope they offered to a worried public, frustrated with the medical establishment’s frequent lack of empathy, entrenched hostility toward new ideas, and inability to constructively address the fears of patients and their families.

While polio has been largely eradicated, those institutional problems haven’t really gone away, which is why Sister Kenny’s story still resonates decades later

Aaron Severson is the associate editor of Working Nurse. You can find his recent historical features William Rathbone VI (1819-1902), Father of English District Nursing and A Brief History of Measles and Its Vaccines.


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