By: Steph Cantrill
We recently had a question submitted to our website, which was featured in the new Question and Answer session in Polio Oz News. The question was about Sister Kenny, and whether she actually cured polio.
The answer was no, but we thought we’d share a bit about her anyway…
Who was Sister Kenny?
Elizabeth “Lisa” Kenny (1880-1952) was born in New South Wales and grew up in the town of Nobby, Queensland. When Lisa was 17, she fell off a horse and broke her wrist. Her treatment and rehabilitation led to a keen interest in anatomy, especially in learning how muscles worked. The doctor in charge of her care became her mentor, and Lisa even made her own model skeleton to learn from.
Instead of jumping straight into nursing though, Lisa was certified as a teacher of religious instruction, then listed herself as a piano teacher as well. She moved back to NSW and worked as a broker of agricultural sales, and then got a job in the kitchen at a cottage hospital. With what she learned at the hospital, combined with her earlier training and a recommendation from the cottage hospital doctor, Lisa returned to Nobby and became a “bush nurse.”
Nursing career – beginnings
Nurse Kenny, as she was then known, started her nursing career in Nobby and then opened a cottage hospital in Clifton, near Toowoomba, in 1911. It was during this time that she believed she saw her first cases of “infantile paralysis” – now known as polio.
In 1915, she volunteered as a nurse in the First World War (despite not having an official nursing qualification). It was during her service that she earned the title “Sister” by which she is now famously known. In 1918 she returned to Nobby to look after patients infected with the Spanish flu, and also became the first president of the Nobby branch of the Country Women’s Association. She later returned to NSW to care for the daughter of a childhood friend, who had Cerebral Palsy.
Developing a new polio treatment
In 1931, Sister Kenny stayed with some other friends for 18 months to nurse their niece, who had contracted polio. When the girl was able to walk, local newspapers of the time began calling it a cure. Over the next few years she worked with more and more children paralysed by polio, and set up various Kenny clinics around the country.
Sister Kenny’s form of polio treatment promoted movement and heat. Her method was quite different from the usual treatment of the period, which mostly involved immobilising affected limbs through casts and splints.
Sister Kenny’s method wasn’t universally accepted, with many doctors and the British Medical Association questioning her practices. She started to make enemies as well as friends in the medical field, but it was in the United States that she found the most support. Kenny treatment centres were established throughout America, and her methods of movement and heat treatment were used with hundreds of children recovering from polio. In Australia, her methods were not accepted by the medical fraternity throughout the epidemics, despite becoming standard polio care in most developed countries. While some of her theories remained controversial, her principles of muscle movement and rehabilitation became the foundation for modern physiotherapy.
No cure – but the vaccine has helped
Despite the significant recovery that many children experienced, the treatment was not a cure – as anyone who experiences Late Effects of Polio could tell you. To this day, polio does not have a cure. But it does have a powerful enemy: the vaccine. With both the Salk and Sabin vaccines in common use today, polio cases have reduced by 99% since 1988. With one last effort to ensure universal access to the vaccine, we could see polio eradicated from the globe.
Recently, our Clinical Educator, Michael visited the Sister Kenny Memorial and Museum in Nobby, QLD. Here are a few photos from his visit to the Memorial and Museum:
If you’re interested in reading more on this fascinating woman, here are a few options:
- “Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Maverick Heroine of the Polio Treatment Controversy,” by Wade Alexander
- “Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio,” by Kerry Highley
- “Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors,” by Victor Cohn
- “And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny,” by Elizabeth Kenny and Martha Ostenso
- “Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Invented Herself,” by Allan Hildon
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