Sister Elizabeth Kenny versus the Polio Epidemic

By Jaime Seltzer

Sister Elizabeth Kenny was a bush nurse living in rural Australia in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Rather than go to college for medicine and earn a degree, Elizabeth studied under anyone who would collaborate with her, from traditional practitioners to board-certified surgeons, and obtained her knowledge through experience. She would ride out to her patients on horseback, many of whom were too impoverished to pay for the privilege.

Kenny went on to serve as a nurse on British battleships during World War I, where she attained the rank of lieutenant. Contrary to popular belief, she was never actually a nun: a Sister was what one called a female lieutenant at the time.

Contrary to popular belief, she was never actually a nun: a Sister was what one called a female lieutenant at the time.

Kenny had worked in the bush for many years when she stumbled across a very puzzling case. A local child had fallen ill with a terrible fever, and could not stop shaking. Kenny wired a physician she trusted and asked for advice. “Sounds like infantile paralysis,” was the return, wired message. “Nothing to do but treat the symptoms.”

Common medical practice recommended bolting the child down like a bug to flypaper, lashing splints to the arms and legs to prevent the spasm from occurring. This did not actually prevent the muscle spasms so much as make them more difficult to observe, giving the physician the illusion that he had done something useful.

Luckily, Kenny had no idea of the ‘proper’ treatment, and her colleague’s advice was to treat the symptoms. Therefore, when the child complained of muscular aches, Kenny applied hot compresses within woolen blankets with weights to press the warm fabric to the muscle. When the child’s muscles began to stiffen and atrophy, Kenny worked every day on gentle stretching and exercises to loosen them. Slowly but surely, through what we would now call heat therapy and physical therapy, the child fully recovered over the course of about a year.

Elizabeth Kenny

Sister Elizabeth Kenny and her card in the Women in Science game.

When the polio virus began to spread through the outback, Kenny had her hands full treating dozens of children, the vast majority of whom not only survived, but regained most of their mobility.
Sister Kenny was so excited about her treatments and they had received such good local press that the Australian government invited her to demonstrate her methods to physicians. However, they found her explanations as to why her methods worked to be nonsensical, and ridiculed her efforts. The uneducated Sister Kenny simply did not speak the same medical ‘language’ as her audience.

The public, who had seen her devotion to her patients and its results, pressed the government into helping her open a medical clinic in Australia, and she later instituted the March of Dimes to fund her work in the United States, where she was (slightly) better received. She worked with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and eventually opened up her own clinic in that area.

Even with this unofficial nod by the most prominent physicians in the U.S., many physicians continued to refuse to acknowledge Kenny’s success, claiming that the original child must have been misdiagnosed, and all the other children, too; because if they’d really had polio, they would be crippled. This kind of circular thinking is not very scientific, but it nonetheless prevailed. Perhaps this was because it was hard to admit that an untrained female bush doctor could have succeeded where they had failed. There was also already a bias towards ‘new’, ‘scientific’ cures in the late 1930s and early 1940s: heat, massage, and exercise were thought to be just too simple to successfully address an illness that had killed and crippled thousands.

Physicians characterized Kenny as someone who just wanted attention for her ‘fad’ cure, and it was true that Kenny dramatized her encounters with ill children in order to push her cause forward. However, it’s hard to blame her when immobilization resulted in death and permanent injury and her own method produced healthy, happy, completely recovered patients.

Despite a medical system that disbelieved her and publicly mocked her, eventually good sense prevailed. Those who worked with polio discarded the splints and took up Kenny’s method; and today, heat therapy and gentle movement are an important part of the protocol physicians use for all spastic neuromuscular disorders.

References:
Cartwright, R. L. (2015, June 30). Sister Kenny Institute. In MNOpedia. Retrieved from http://www.mnopedia.org/thing/sister-kenny-institute
Lerner, B. H. (2013, December 26). A Nurse Gains Fame in the Days of Polio. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/12/26/a-nurse-gains-fame-in-the-days-of-polio/?_r=0
Ross Patrick, ‘Kenny, Elizabeth (1880–1952)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kenny-elizabeth-6934/text12031, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 August 2015.
Zaccaro, E. (2003). Elizabeth Kenny and Polio. In The 10 Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught) (pp. 99-102). Bellevue, IA: Hickory Grove Press.

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