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Sister Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952)

Elizabeth Kenny was an Australian nurse who developed innovative yet highly controversial treatments for polio. Initially in Australia, and from 1940 in the United States, Kenny energetically promoted her theories and methods. These were at odds with the orthodox treatment of immobilisation through the use of plaster casts and splints. Vilified by the medical establishment, she became a hugely popular public figure, once voted the ‘Most admirable woman in the United States’.

Kenny’s treatment of polio involved prolonged applications of moist hot packs to help ease muscles, relieve pain and allow limbs to be stretched and gently exercised. She felt that muscles needed to be physically ‘re-trained’ in order to function again. Seen as beacons of hope by parents desperate for their stricken children and dissatisfied by existing treatments, a series of Kenny treatment centres opened across the United States throughout the 1940s. The development of a vaccine for polio two years after her death led to a rapid reduction in polio cases, but Kenny’s methods retain a place in rehabilitative medicine to this day.

Kenny was even the subject of a Hollywood film. Released in 1946, Sister Kenny was a stirring romantic adventure that carried the tagline: ‘A woman made for love… but whose service to humanity became her destiny!’ It was a popular film that earned Rosalind Russell, who played the title role, a Golden Globe and a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

 

Bibliography

V Cohn, Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1975)

V Cohn, 'Sister Kenny's fierce fight for better Polio care', Smithsonian, 12/8 (1981), pp 180-200

F P Kendall, 'Sister Elizabeth Kenny revisited', Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 79/4 (1998), pp 361-365

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