|Born||20 September 1880|
Warialda, New South Wales
|Died||30 November 1952 (aged 72)|
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia
Sister Elizabeth Kenny (20 September 1880 – 30 November 1952) was a self-trained Australian bush nurse, who developed an approach to treating poliomyelitis that was controversial at the time. Her method, promoted internationally while working in Australia, Europe and the United States, differed from the conventional one of placing affected limbs in plaster casts. Instead she applied hot compresses, followed by passive movement of the areas to reduce what she called "spasm". Her principles of muscle rehabilitation became the foundation of physical therapy or physiotherapy in such cases. Her life story was told in a 1946 film, Sister Kenny, portrayed by Rosalind Russell, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance.
Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, New South Wales, in 1880, to the Australian-born Mary Kenny, née Moore, and Michael Kenny, a farmer from Ireland. She was called Lisa by her family and home-schooled by her mother before attending schools in Guyra, New South Wales, and Nobby, Queensland. At the age of 17, she broke her wrist in a fall from a horse. Her father took her to Aeneas McDonnell, a medical doctor in Toowoomba, where she remained during her convalescence. While there, Kenny studied McDonnell's anatomy books and model skeleton. This began a lifelong association with McDonnell, who became her mentor and advisor. Kenny later confirmed that she became interested in how muscles worked while convalescing from her accident. Instead of using a model skeleton, available for medical students only, she made her own. After her time with McDonnell, Kenny was certified by the Secretary of Public Instruction as a teacher of religious instruction and taught Sunday School in Rockfield. Having become a self-taught pianist, she listed herself as a "teacher of music" and did so a few hours a week.
In 1907, Kenny returned to Guyra, New South Wales, first living with her grandmother and then with her cousin Minnie Bell. She soon became a successful broker of agricultural sales between Guyra farmers and northern markets in Brisbane. After that she worked in the kitchen in Scotia, a local midwife's cottage hospital and the local Dr Harris gave her a letter of recommendation. With some savings from her brokerage work she paid a local seamstress to make her a nurse's uniform. With that and the observations she had made at Scotia and under Dr Harris, she returned to Nobby to offer her services as a Bush Nurse. By then she was known as Nurse Kenny, earning the title Sister while nursing on cargo ships that carried soldiers to and from Australia and England during the First World War. In Britain and Commonwealth countries, "Sister" as a title of courtesy applies not only to members of a religious order but to a more highly qualified nurse, one grade below "Matron".
After her 1909 return to Nobby, Kenny worked as a bush nurse, reaching her patients on foot or often by horseback. In November 1911 she opened a Cottage Hospital at Clifton which she named St. Canice's, where she provided convalescent and midwifery services. In her 1943 autobiography she claimed that in 1911 she treated what McDonnell thought was infantile paralysis under the supervision of Dr Horn, the local Lodge Doctor. The story was romanticized in the 1946 film Sister Kenny, featuring Rosalind Russell. In her autobiography Kenny wrote that she sought McDonnell's opinion. He wired back saying "treat them according to the symptoms as they present themselves." Sensing that their muscles were tight, she did what mothers around the world did: applied hot compresses made from woollen blankets to their legs. Kenny wrote that a little girl woke up much relieved and said, "Please, I want them rags that well my legs." Several children recovered with no serious after-effects. The published versions of the story include ones in Victor Cohn's 1975 biography, in Ostenso's, and in Kenny's hand-written autobiography. The most dependable, however, is most likely to be in a letter to Victor Cohn from the Toowoomba journalist T. Thompson. Many years passed before Kenny treated anyone else who might have had polio.
World War I
In 1915, Kenny volunteered to serve as a nurse in the First World War and went to Europe. She was not officially a qualified nurse, but nurses were badly needed and she was assigned to work on "Dark Ships", slow-moving transports that ran with all lights off between Australia and England. They carried out war goods and soldiers and wounded soldiers and trade goods on the return voyage. Kenny served on these dangerous missions throughout the war, making 16 round trips (plus one round the world via the Panama Canal). In 1917 she earned the title "Sister", which in the Australian Army Nursing Corps is the equivalent of a First Lieutenant. Kenny used that title for the rest of her life. She was criticized by some for doing so, but Kenny was officially promoted to the rank during her wartime service. During the final months of the war, she served for a few weeks as matron to a soldiers' hospital near Brisbane. By then she was worn down by her wartime duties, honourably discharged and awarded a pension.
Return to Queensland
Although exhausted by war service, Kenny set up a temporary hospital in Nobby to care for victims of the 1918 flu pandemic. When the epidemic subsided, Kenny travelled to Guyra to recuperate. Still exhausted and sick, she decided to go to Europe, where doctors helped. She then returned to Nobby, but within days was summoned to Guyra by a girlhood friend to care for her daughter Daphne. The girl was disabled with what was known then as cerebral diplegia. Kenny treated her at Cregan's Station west of Guyra for three years and continued her association with her for many years. Treatment of Daphne, plus her wartime nursing of the sick and wounded provided Kenny experience for her later work of rehabilitating polio victims.
Instead of settling at home as a spinster caring for her mother, Kenny continued to work from there as a nurse. Her neighbour Stan Kuhn took her to patients in his motorcycle sidecar or car. When his younger sister Sylvia fell into the path of his horse-drawn plough, he carried her home and called Kenny. She quickly improvised a stretcher from a cupboard door, carefully secured Sylvia to it, and rode with her in the local ambulance 26 miles to McDonnell's office. He helped Sylvia recover and credited Kenny for her stretcher and her careful care. She improved the stretcher for use by local ambulance services, and for the next three years marketed it as the Sylvia Stretcher, in Australia, Europe and the United States. She turned the profits of this over to the Country Women's Association, which dealt with its sales and manufacture. At that time Kenny, while travelling to sell the Stretcher, adopted eight-year-old Mary Stewart to be a companion for Mother Kenny. Mary later became one of Sister Kenny's best "technicians".
This section has an unclear citation style.(October 2021)
As sales of the Sylvia Stretcher declined, Kenny returned to Nobby to work as a nurse. During one of her sales journeys she had met the Rollinson family, who owned a station west of Townsville. Kenny telephoned them in 1931 while a trip to visit her brother Will. They promptly asked her to care for their niece Maude, who was disabled by polio. After 18 months under Kenny's care, Maude was able to walk, return to Townsville, marry and conceive a child. The newspapers in Townsville took up the story, referring to it as a cure. In 1932, Queensland suffered its highest number of polio cases in 30 years; the following year several local people helped Kenny set up a rudimentary paralysis-treatment facility under canopies behind the Queens Hotel in Townsville. After a few months' further success with local children, she moved to the bottom floor of the hotel. The first official evaluation of her work took place in Townsville in 1934 under the auspices of the Queensland Department of Health. Her success led to the establishment of Kenny clinics in several cities in Australia. The History of Rockhampton Base Hospital Sister Kenny Clinic in the Outpatients Building of the Rockhampton Base Hospital is now listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.
Over these years, Kenny developed her clinical method and gained recognition in Australia. She was adamantly opposed to immobilising children's bodies with plaster casts or braces. Kenny requested that she be permitted to treat children in the acute stage of the disease with hot compresses, as she claimed to have done in Clifton before the war, but doctors would not allow her to do so until after the acute stage of the disease, or until "tightness" (Kenny used the word "spasm" much later) subsided. She instituted a careful regimen of passive "exercises" designed to recall function in unaffected neural pathways, much as she had done with Maude. On her own, she began treating a patient in the acute stage in her George Street Clinic in Brisbane, afterwards transferring her to the Ward 7 Polio Clinic in Brisbane General Hospital. That child and others recovered with fewer after-effects than those placed in braces. In 1937, she published an introductory book about her work and began another, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in The Acute Stage, known as The Green Book and later published in the United States. The most broadest appraisal of her methods, "The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralyses And Its Treatment," was published in collaboration with Dr John Pohl in 1943 and known as "The Red Book.".
Between 1935 and 1940, Kenny travelled extensively in Australia, helping to establish clinics. She made two trips to England, where she set up a treatment clinic in St Mary's Hospital near Carshalton. Kenny's success was controversial; many Australian doctors and the British Medical Association questioned her results and methodology. Raphael Cilento, who was in charge of the QHD evaluation, wrote a report that was somewhat complimentary but mainly critical. Kenny replied publicly, fiercely taking Cilento to task for his criticisms, unheard of then from a self-taught Australian Bush Nurse. This response caused contentious relations among Kenny, Cilento, the BMA and the Australian Massage Association (AMA). Between 1936 and 1938, a Queensland Government Royal Commission evaluated Kenny's work and published its Report of The Queensland Royal Commission on Modern Methods for the Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in 1938. Its most critical comment, on Kenny opposing the use of splints and plaster casts was: "The abandonment of immobilization is a grievous error and fraught with grave danger, especially in very young patients who cannot co-operate in re-education." However, it stated that her clinic, then in Brisbane, was "admirable". The Commissioners' strongest words were against the Queensland government, then funding Kenny's work, as her clinics were unsupervised by medical practitioners. The Queensland Government rejected the report and continued to support Kenny.
In the US
In 1940, the New South Wales government sent Kenny and her adopted daughter Mary, who had become an expert in Kenny's method, to America to present her clinical method for treating polio victims to doctors. After a sea journey from Sydney to Los Angeles and by rail to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, back to Chicago and to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, she was given a chance to show her work in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Doctors Miland Knapp and John Pohl, who headed polio treatment centres there, were impressed and told her she should stay. They found an apartment for Kenny and Mary; several years later, the city of Minneapolis gave them a house. The city was Kenny's base in America for 11 years. In a 1943 letter to the British Medical Journal, Kenny noted, "There have been upwards of 300 doctors attending the classes at the University of Minnesota."
During this time, several Kenny treatment centres were opened throughout America, the best-known being the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis (opened 17 December 1942; now the Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute). Dr Knapp served as director of training at the Minneapolis Sister Kenny Institute after it opened in 1942, and was director of physical medicine and rehabilitation from 1948 to 1964 as well.There were also facilities at the New Jersey Medical Center and the Ruth Home in El Monte, California. She received honorary degrees from Rutgers University and the University of Rochester. She joined for lunch US President Roosevelt, whose paralytic illness was believed to be polio, discussing his treatment at Warm Springs. In 1951, Kenny topped Gallup's most admired man and woman poll as the only woman in the first ten years of the annual list to displace Eleanor Roosevelt from the top. The Sister Kenny Foundation was established in Minneapolis to support her and her work throughout the United States.
Some doctors changed their initial professional scepticism when they saw the effects Kenny's method had on her patients, both children and adults. Many magazines covered her work. In 1975 Victor Cohn wrote the first detailed biography of her life and work. During her first year in Minneapolis, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) paid her personal expenses and financed trials of her work. That support ceased, however, after a series of disagreements with the NFIP Director. Kenny was a determined and outspoken woman, which harmed her relations with the medical profession, but her method continued to be used and helped hundreds of people suffering from polio.
In recognition of her work, in February 1950 President Harry Truman signed a Congressional bill giving Kenny the right to enter and leave the US as she wished without a visa. This honour had only been granted once before, to the French Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a leader in the American War of Independence.
Final years and death
Kenny filled her final years with extensive journeys in America, Europe and Australia in an effort to increase acceptance of her method. She tried, unsuccessfully, to have medical researchers agree with her that polio was a systemic disease. She attended the second International Congress about polio in Copenhagen. There she was shunned and unable to participate. Suffering from Parkinson's disease, she stopped on her way home in Melbourne to meet privately with internationally respected virologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet. He wrote of the visit in his autobiography.
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. But there was an air of greatness about her and I shall never forget that meeting.
In an attempt to save her life from cerebral thrombosis, Irving Innerfield of New York sent his experimental drug based on the enzyme trypsin by air mail to Brisbane. It was rushed by car to Toowoomba and administered on 29 November 1952, but her doctor found Kenny too close to death to benefit and she died the following day.
Kenny's funeral on 1 December 1952 at Neil Street Methodist Church in Toowoomba was recorded for transmission in other parts of Australia and in the United States. The cortège to Nobby Cemetery was one of the largest seen in Toowoomba. Kenny was buried there beside her mother.
Between 1934 and her death in 1952, Kenny and her associates cared for thousands of patients, including polio victims throughout the world. Their testimony to Sister Kenny's help is part of her legacy, as is The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis, and Its Treatment, known as the "Red Book".
A Sister Kenny Memorial House was opened in Nobby on 5 October 1997 by Prof John Pearn. This contains many artefacts from Kenny's life and a collection of documents from her private correspondence, papers and newspaper clippings. In Toowoomba, the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Memorial Fund provides scholarships to students attending the University of Southern Queensland who dedicate themselves to work in rural and remote areas of Australia. In Townsville, her life was marked in 1949 by the unveiling of a Sister Kenny Memorial and Children's Playground.
Sister Kenny is referenced in the TV movie An American Christmas Carol, where the Tiny Tim character, Jonathan, is sent for treatment for his disability, never referred to specifically, however, as polio. Her treatments are also suggested to be the basis for Olivia Walton's recovery in The Waltons' first-season episode "An Easter Story". Olivia's will to walk again after polio leads her to take the chance that Kenny's methods might work.
The cartoonist and amputee Al Capp was involved with the Sister Kenny Foundation in the 1940s and 1950s. As honorary chairman, Capp made public appearances on its behalf, contributed artwork for its annual fundraising appeals, and entertained disabled children in hospitals with pep talks, humorous stories and sketches.
Alan Alda credits the Sister Kenny treatments he received from his mother as a young boy for his complete recovery from polio, stating in his autobiography Never Have Your Dog Stuffed that he has no question about their efficacy. In an interview with Actors Studio, the actor Martin Sheen recounted that he contracted polio as a child and it was due to his doctor using Sister Kenny's method that he regained use of his legs.
Polio patients treated with the Sister Kenny method
- Joy McKean, singer, recovered from polio after being treated by Sister Kenny.
Below are famous people whose polio was treated with the method developed by Kenny, but not by Kenny herself.
- Alan Alda, American actor
- Peg Kehret (née Schulze), American author
- Marjorie Lawrence, Australian opera singer, who regained only partial use of her legs
- Martin Sheen, American actor
- Dinah Shore, American singer
- Robert Anton Wilson, American writer
- Elizabeth Kenny, Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia: Method of Restoration of Function (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1937)
- Elizabeth Kenny, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in the Acute Stage (Minneapolis–St. Paul, Bruce Publishing Co. 1941)
- Elizabeth Kenny, My Battle and Victory: History of The Discovery of Poliomyelitis as a Systemic Disease (London: Robert Hale, 1955)
- Martha Ostenso and Elizabeth Kenny, And They Shall Walk (Bruce Publishing Co, Minneapolis-St Paul 1943)
- John Pohl, MD, and Elizabeth Kenny, The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis and Its Treatment (St. Paul: Bruce Pub. Co. 1943)
- Naomi Rogers, Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and The Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford University Press, N.Y. 2014)
- Wade Alexander, Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Maverick Heroine of The Polio Treatment Controversy, (Greystone Press, San Luis Obispo CA 2012). Note: This is an unredacted edition which includes content not in the Outback Press/CQU 2003 Edition which is out of print. The book is now published by the Sister Kenny Memorial House in Nobby QLD, AU. The Greystone 2012 Edition is available in an electronic version from the author.
- Elizabeth Kenny, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in the Acute Stage, Minneapolis, St Paul: Bruce Pub. Co., 1941.
- Rogers, Naomi (2014), The polio wars: Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the golden age of American medicine, Oxford Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-538059-0
- Patrick, Ross (1983). Biography – Elizabeth Kenny. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. Archived from the original on 14 June 2014. Retrieved 6 June 2014.
- Kenny biography Archived 14 June 2014 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved 1 March 2016
- Reference entry in VIAF Archived 17 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine, probably an error, c.f. the tombstone depicted.
- E. Kenny, 1943. And They Shall Walk. New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Alexander, Wade, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Maverick Heroine of The Polio Treatment Controversy, N. American Edition including redacted text from 2003 CQU Press Ed, Greystone Press, San Luis Obispo CA, 2012, p. 51.
- Alexander, 2003.
- "Medicine: Sister Kenny Fights On". Time, 2 April 1945. Archived 5 November 2012 at the Wayback Machine
- V. Cohn, 1975. Sister Kenny: The woman who challenged the doctors. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Alexander 2012 edition, pp. 55–58.
- Alexander 2012, pp. 69–88.
- Australian Women's Weekly, "Sister Kenny's Treatment For Infantile Paralysis". 1937, Vol. 5, No. 25, p. 3.
- Sydney Morning Herald, "Paralysis. A new system of treatment", 16 February 1935, p. 15.
- "COUNTRY WOMEN'S ASSOCIATION". The Brisbane Courier (20, 986). Queensland, Australia. 29 April 1925. p. 23. Retrieved 1 January 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
- Alexander 2012, pp. 93–98.
- Alexander 2012, pp. 100–102.
- "Rockhampton Hospital – Therapies Block and Medical Superintendents Residence (entry 601967 )". Queensland Heritage Register. Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
- E. Kenny, 1941. The treatment of infantile paralysis in the acute stage. Minneapolis: Bruce Publishing Co.
- J. F. Pohl, and E. Kenny, 1943. The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis And Its Treatment. Minneapolis: Bruce Publishing.
- Alexander 2012, p. 136.
- K. Highley (2015), Dancing in my dreams. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing.
- R. W. Cilento, 1933. Report on Sister E. Kenny’s after-treatment of cases of paralysis following poliomyelitis. Fryer Library, University of Queensland, UQFL44 Box 18/.
- Report on the Muscle Re-Education Clinic Townsville; and the Work by Sister E. Kenny. "Summary of Facts." – James Cook University Library, Sister Kenny Archive.
- The Medical Journal of Australia, Report of the Queensland Royal Commission on Modern Methods for the Treatment of Infantile Paralysis, 29 January 1938, I:5, pp. 187–224.
- Alexander, Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Maverick Heroine of the Polio Treatment Controversy, chapters 6–9.
- Bligh, Anna (10 June 2009). "Premier Unveils Queensland's 150 Icons". Queensland Government. Archived from the original on 24 May 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2017.
- Kenny (15 May 1943). "Kenny Treatment of Poliomyelitis". British Medical Journal. 2 (4297): 615–616 (quote p.616). doi:10.1136/bmj.1.4297.615-b. PMC 2282914.
- R.L. Cartwright (27 November 2012). "Sister Kenny Institute revolutionized treatment of polio patients". MNOPedia. MinnPost. Archived from the original on 2 March 2020. Retrieved 23 April 2020.
- Pheifer, Pat (9 February 1991). "Physical rehabilitation pioneer Dr. Miland Knapp dies". Star Tribune. p. 4B.
- "Sister Kenny Forged Medical Revolt – Physicians Concede Her Spot in History". The Windsor Daily Star. Windsor, Ontario. United Press. 1 December 1952. p. 7.
- George Gallup. "Mrs. Roosevelt again leads list of most admired women", The Dallas Morning News, 22 January 1956, p. 12: "The one year since 1946 that Mrs. Roosevelt did not head the list was in 1951, when she ran second to Sister Kenny, internationally famous nurse who pioneered a treatment for polio."
- Alexander 2012, p. 238.
- "The remarkable saga of Elisabeth Kenny". Brisbane Telegraph. 1 December 1952. p. 5 (STUMPS). Retrieved 5 July 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- Alexander 2012, p. 491, Burnett Bio, note 41, Heinemann, William, Changing Patterns, An Atypical Autobiography, Sir MacFarlane Burnett,(Melbourne, Sun Books Pty Ltd. 1970), pp. 166–168.
- "New Drug Being Flown from U.S. to Treat Sister Kenny". Queensland Times (20, 561) (Daily ed.). 28 November 1952. p. 1. Retrieved 5 July 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Flight For Sister Kenny". Truth (2749). Brisbane. 30 November 1952. p. 1. Retrieved 5 July 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "SISTER KENNY BURIED NEAR MOTHER AT NOBBY". Brisbane Telegraph. 1 December 1952. p. 2 (STUMPS). Retrieved 5 July 2017 – via National Library of Australia.
- "Sister Elizabeth Kenny". Monument Australia. Archived from the original on 1 January 2019. Retrieved 1 January 2019.
- The Strand - Townsville City Council Archived 31 August 2007 at the Wayback Machine
- Actors Studio – Pace University. "Interview with Martin Sheen". YouTube. Inside the Actors Studio. Archived from the original on 12 March 2016. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
- W. Alexander. Sister Elizabeth Kenny: maverick heroine of the polio treatment controversy (First published by Central Queensland University Press 2003, now published by Sister Kenny Memorial House Nobby, QLD).ISBN 978-1-876780-24-1 227 pp.
- V. Cohn. Sister Kenny: The woman who challenged the doctors (University of Minnesota Press, 1975)
- Naomi Rogers. Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine (Oxford University Press; 2013) 456 pp.
- Allan Hildon. Sister Kenny: The woman who invented herself (Amazon KDP; 2020) 162 pp.
- Kerry Highley. Dancing in my dreams (Monash University Publishing, 2015)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Elizabeth Kenny.|
Media files used on this page
Sister Kenny House, Nobby. Sister Kenny House, Nobby, Queensland.
Elizabeth Kenny, half-length portrait, facing front, waving from the Queen Mary / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna.
Sister Elizabeth Kenny (left) in her garden at her home Straun, 30 Fairholme Street, Toowoomba 1952, accompanied (right) by her Australian secretary, Miss Betty Brennan (later Mrs Elizabeth Clark)
Author/Creator: Kerry Raymond at English Wikipedia, Licence: CC-BY-SA-3.0
Headstone of Sister Elizabeth Kenny in Nobby cemetery, Clifton Shire, Queensland, Australia. Photo taken by me (Kerry Raymond) on 8 April 2007. User:Staeckerbot/Duplicate-file-info
Sister Kenny Clinic, Brisbane. (Also known as The Elizabeth Kenny Clinic and Training School. Located Corner George and Charlotte Streets, Brisbane.)
Nurse Elizabeth Kenny photographed in 1915 Nurse Kenny photographed as she went to nurse in England during World War I.
Sister Kenny Clinic, Rockhampton Hospital, 1939
Sister Kenny Memorial. Sister Kenny Memorial, Nobby, Queensland.