Sister Kenny: Miracle Worker
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Poliomyelitis: The Last Childhood Plague
Living in Fear: America in the Polio Years
Roosevelt: A Presidential Campaign
March of Dimes: America Fights Back
You are on Sister Kenny
Dr. Salk: The Man Who Saved the Children
Nearing the end of the battle
In Conclusion

Elizabeth Kenny as a young woman.
Elizabeth Kenny as a
young woman







Sister Kenny was not a nun. 







Kenny meets with President Roosevelt.
Kenny meets with
President Roosevelt.

Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia in 1886.  As a youngster in New South Wales—and later in Queensland—she was very active.  When she was in her teens, she broke her wrist during a fall from her horse.  Her doctor, Aeneas MacDonald, showed her textbook diagrams of the bones and muscles and how they worked.  She was fascinated.  She tried to borrow a skeleton, but was unable to, so she rigged one of her own from ropes and pulleys.1

She became a bush nurse, traveling through the Australian outback, treating anyone who couldn't get to a doctor.  She did everything a physician might do, from setting bones to delivering babies.

In 1911, Kenny arrived at a farm to treat a young girl.  She found the girl crippled.  Kenny had never seen anything like this.  She communicated with Dr. MacDonald, asking for advice.  He responded, "It sounds like Infantile Paralysis.  There's no known treatment, so do the best you can."2

Kenny did.  Drawing on her knowledge of the musculoskeletal system, she applied hot packs to the girl's spasming muscles.  The little girl recovered.  Of the twenty children in the district, the six that Kenny treated survived without complications.3

When World War I broke out, Kenny joined the Australian Medical Corps.  It was then that she earned the title "Sister." She traveled between Europe and Australia on hospital ships and was wounded in the leg by shrapnel while working at the front.4

Kenny returned to Australia after the war and continued to care for patients.  She also invented a stretcher designed to transport people in shock.  It was called the Sylvia Stretcher, after the young patient for whom it was designed.  Kenny patented the stretcher and earned money from the royalties for many years.  In 1933, she used these earnings to open her own clinic for the treatment of polio patients in Townsville, Queensland.5

Kenny's method brought her into controversy with the medical authorities in Australia.  Common knowledge stated that the stronger muscles pulled on the weakened or paralyzed muscles and created the characteristic poliomyelitic deformities.  The accepted practice was to splint the extremities and hold them rigid.  Kenny believed that the practice actually produced both the deformities and paralysis.  She used hot packs to reduce muscle spasms and the pain they caused.  (Although a polio patient lost motor nerves, their sensory nerves were not affected, and they were frequently in extreme pain.6  Imagine having a leg cramp for several weeks.)  She also moved the patient's extremities as if guiding them through physical therapy.  Although the patient couldn't work the muscles themselves, the motion helped.7

In 1940, Sister Kenny and her adopted daughter, Mary, came to the United States.  As in Australia, she and her methods were not readily accepted by the American medical community.  To some extent, this may have been due to her physical appearance.  At 5'8" tall, 154 pounds, wearing large feathered hats that some said made her look like Admiral Lord Nelson, she was an imposing figure in a society that expected women to be quiet and demure.  To her patients, however, her physical appearance gave them comfort; she looked like a woman who could take on the dread poliovirus.8

She did not let herself be deterred by opposition.  Eventually, she was allowed to present at the University of Minnesota.  And although her methods were never subjected to strict scientific study, most agreed that the patients in her care did better than those who were splinted.  In fact, in the first year after her methods gained wide-spread use, the incidence of residual paralysis dropped from 85% to 15%.9  Her methods were so successful that people were able to ignore her other controversial ideas, such as her belief that polio was a disease of the muscles rather than the nervous system, and her discouragement of the use of the iron lung except in cases of bulbar (respiratory) polio.10

In 1942, Kenny established the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis.11  In part because of the controversy surrounding her theories, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis never supported the Institute, although they did fund both the training of Kenny therapists in at the University of Minnesota and the staffing of therapists in polio wards.12

Kenny demonstrates her technique.
Kenny demonstrates her technique.

In 1946, Rosalind Russell starred in a movie about Kenny's life.  In 1947, so few patients were being treated with splints that 10,000 of them were sold for scrap.13

In 1952, Kenny was the most admirable woman in the United States, according to the Gallup Pole, edging out Eleanor Roosevelt, who had held the top spot for twenty years.14  That same year, during a home trip to Australia, she died.  She was seventy-two.15

The Sister Kenny Institute is now part of Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.  It is still devoted to the rehabilitation of people who suffer from physical limitations because of disease, illness, neurological or neuromuscular problems, injury, or pain.16  Sister Kenny's methods are still a part of rehabilitative therapy around the world.17

Living in Fear
Roosevelt | March of Dimes | Sister Kenny| Dr. Salk
Polio Today | In Conclusion
Bibliography | Links


1.  "Sister Elizabeth Kenny."  Australians Documentary Series.  1998.  (1 June 1999)

2.  ibid.

3.  ibid. 

4.  Holland, Henry, M.D.  "Sister Kenny: Polio Pioneer."  The Lincolnshire Post-Polio Library.  6 June 1997.
.   (1 June 1999).

5.  ibid.

6.  Dobrowolsky, Donna.   "Polio."  Saskatchewan Awareness of Post Polio Society, Inc.   (27 May 1999).

7.  Holland, Henry, M.D.  loc. cit.

8.  ibid.

9.  Beckstrand, Jan, RN.  "History of Nursing Science."  Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (professor's personal Web space).   (1 June 1999).

10.  Holland, Henry, M.D.  loc. cit.

11.  "Welcome to Sister Kenny Institute."   Sister Kenny Institute.  1997.  (1 June 1999).

12.  Holland, Henry, M.D.  loc. cit.

13.  "And They Shall Walk."  National History Day   (1 June 1999).

14.  ibid.

15.  "Sister Elizabeth Kenny."  Australians Documentary Series.  loc. cit.

16.  "Welcome to Sister Kenny Institute."   loc. cit.

17.  "Sister Elizabeth Kenny."  Australians Documentary Series.  loc. cit.