Sister Kenny’s Battle

by Elouise

Polio, Photo, Elizabeth_Kenny_NYWTSElizabeth Kenny (1880-1952)

Few women have battled the medical establishment with such flair and so little respect as Sister Kenny.

Born in New South Wales, Australia, Elizabeth Kenney’s father was from Ireland; her mother was native born. Kenny began educating herself as a nurse while recovering from a broken wrist. Her resources included books on anatomy and a model skeleton from her physician who later became a friend and mentor, Dr. McDonnell.

Kenny didn’t have a nursing degree. Nor did she give herself the title ‘Sister.’ Early on she volunteered at a small maternity hospital. Later, she began visiting patients who needed and requested medical help. She charged nothing, and got around on horseback.

In 1915, during World War I, Kenny enlisted as a staff nurse in the Australian Army Nurse Corps, thanks to a letter from Dr. McDonnell.  In 1917 she was promoted to Sister—the equivalent of first lieutenant or chief nurse.

Though he was skeptical at first, Sister Kenny credits Dr. McDonnell with her controversial approach to treating polio patients. When faced with seemingly hopeless cases he told her, ‘Treat the symptoms!’ So she did, with some initial success. But there was a problem. She got the rejects, the patients doctors couldn’t help.

To be fully effective, Sister Kenny needed access to patients during the early, acute stage of polio as well as throughout convalescence. Conventional methods weren’t working. In fact, they made things worse.

The battle was on, first with Australian doctors. Later with doctors from the USA and other countries. By what right does this woman tell us what we should do? Does she have a medical degree? Is she a ‘proper’ nurse? And doesn’t she know how to treat the medical profession with respect?

Here’s what Sister Kenny was fighting against and for.

Conventional Methods
Strict immobilization, often strapped to plank-like devices
with straps, limbs in splints or metal braces (calipers).
No movement at all until the acute stage has passed.

Polio, Toronto 1937, BradfordFrameHSC-AR1937-800

Polio, Baby, Bradford frame images

Sister Kenny’s Method
Hot, moist compresses to ease painful muscle spasms,
and gentle exercise of paralyzed muscles.
No immobilization!
Polio, Sr. Kenney examining child,7%20Examining%20%20a%20Child

Sister Kenny is on the far side.

Nothing about this battle was easy. Here’s a colorful excerpt from the Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume 9, 1983).

In 1932 Sister Kenny established a backyard clinic at Townsville to treat long-term poliomyelitis victims and cerebral palsy patients with hot baths, foments, passive movements, the discarding of braces and calipers and the encouragement of active movements. At a government-sponsored demonstration in Brisbane doctors and masseurs ridiculed her. . . .Thus began a long controversy at a time when there was no vaccination for poliomyelitis. The strong-willed Kenny, with an obsessional belief in her theory and methods, was opposed by a conservative medical profession whom she mercilessly slated and who considered her recommendation to discard immobilization to be criminal. Despite almost total opposition, parental and political pressure with some medical backing resulted in action by the Queensland government. . . .In 1934 clinics to treat long-term poliomyelitis cases were established in Townsville and later in Brisbane. The Brisbane clinic immediately attracted interstate and overseas patients. Kenny clinics in other Queensland cities and interstate followed.

In the USA, physicians who supported Sister Kenny were sometimes shunned. Yet slowly and surely, the tide shifted. A 1942 TIME magazine article reported that an “amazing 80-percent recovery rate through her methods ‘forced [the doctors] to recognize her unorthodox work.’”

To be fair, Sister Kenny’s method didn’t lead to recovery. There was no cure. Her method did, however, offer demonstrably better outcomes than conventional methods. Here’s a summary of positive outcomes from a 1943 article in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.

Patients receiving the Kenny treatment are more comfortable, have better general health and nutrition, are more receptive to muscle training, have a superior morale, require a shorter period of bed rest and hospital care, and seem to have less residual paralysis and deformity than patients treated by older conventional methods. The Kenney treatment is the method of choice for the acute state of infantile paralysis [one form of polio].

Speaking as a citizen of the USA, Thank you Sister Kenny, and Thank You, Australia! Yes, Kenny faced strong opposition in Australia. Yet six doctors in Brisbane signed an endorsement on her behalf, and the Queensland government paid the fare for her first trip to the USA in 1940. If it seems her life reads like a movie script, it is.

Polio, Sr Kenny and Judy Garland,out6

Sister Kenny in Hollywood (1943)
Rosalind Russell (star), Mary McCarthy (writer), Sister Elizabeth Kenny

Sister Kenney is buried next to her mother in the cemetery in Nobby. A small museum there is dedicated to the memory of this daughter of Australia, “a very noble lady.”

Polio, 330px-Headstone_SisterElizabethKennyHeadstone

Headstone in Nobby Cemetery

 * * *

Special thanks to my Australian blogging friend, suchled, for suggesting I write this piece. My mother and my sister Diane (polio survivors) received versions of Sister Kenny’s methods during the acute stage of their illnesses in 1949. The methods didn’t help Diane; they greatly improved my mother’s ability to recover muscle strength.

Resources included articles by Ross Patrick in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, by Miki Fairley at, and an article on Sister Kenny at Wickipedia.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 11 April 2015
Photo credits: (Elizabeth Kenny, headstone); (conventional methods); (Sister Kenny’s method); (Sister Kenny in Hollywood)