Who was Elizabeth Kenny?
Elizabeth Kenny was an Australian nurse and health administrator who went against the conventional medical thought and wisdom and advocated the treatment of muscles affected by poliomyelitis by wet hot compresses and exercises instead of immobilizing them with splints. After much study she concluded that the stiff muscles had to be loosened if the effect of the disease is to be reduced. The procedures followed by her in revitalizing the muscles are the basis of physical therapy which later came to be known as modern physiotherapy. Though her techniques were at odds with the general medical concept of treating polio, she carried on with her methods and was able to treat more than 3000 patients successfully in Australia alone. Her methods were used to treat hundreds of other patients throughout the world. Despite no formal medical education or training in nursing, her methods impressed many doctors throughout the world. She was the first woman in a ten year period to have displaced Eleanor Roosevelt from the number one position in the ‘Gallup Polls’. A film named ‘Sister Kenny’ was brought out in 1946 which tells her life story, her struggles and her ultimate successes.
Childhood & Early Life
Elizabeth Kenny was born on September 20, 1880 in Warialda in New South Wales, Australia. Her father was Michael Kenny an Irish farmer settled in Australia, and her mother was Mary Moore and Australian native.
She was taught by her mother at home before she could attend the schools in New South Wales and Queensland.
She became interested in anatomy at the age of 17 when she was being treated for a broken wrist by Dr. Aeneas Mcdonnell in Toowoomba.
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From the age of 18 up to her mid-twenties Elizabeth Kenny worked as a bush nurse in the district of Clifton.
She returned to Guyra in New South Wales in 1907 where she received basic nursing training from a midwife.
During her stay in Guyra she became a broker of agricultural produce between the farmers and the markets situated in Brisbane.
She returned to Nobby in 1909 and started working as qualified nurse though she had no accreditation.
In 1911 she opened the ‘St. Canice’s Hospital’ at Clifton with the money earned during her brokerage job in Guyra.
With Dr. McDonnell’s advice, she started treating patients by applying hot compresses and weights to loosen their muscles.
During the First World War she volunteered as a nurse and travelled on the ‘Dark Ships’ which ferried wounded soldiers and trade goods from England to Australia.
She was given the honorary title of ‘Sister’ in 1917, the equivalent to the rank of ‘First Lieutenant’ in the ‘Australian Army Nurse Corps’ for her service during the war.
She served as ‘Matron’ in the ‘Enoggera Military Hospital’ located in Brisbane for some weeks but discharged honorably in 1919 due to illness.
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In 1919 she established a temporary hospital in Nobby to care for patients during the influenza epidemic.
She had to travel to Europe for medical attention when she was also afflicted by the disease.
She returned to Nobby and nursed her friend’s daughter suffering from cerebral diplegia and treated other patients who were brought to her.
On one occasion she made a temporary stretcher out of a cupboard door and took her friend’s daughter named Sylvia to Dr. McDonnell’s chamber in Toowoomba for treatment covering a distance of almost 26 miles.
In 1927 she made improvements to the stretcher and sold the ‘Sylvia Stretcher’ in Europe, Australia and the United States for a profit.
In 1929 she nursed a disabled girl named Maude from Townsville using her own techniques to fight the disease and was successful in making her walk in 18 months.
Kenny set up a temporary treatment center for providing polio treatment in 1932 behind the Queens Hotel in Townsville.
The Queensland Health Department conducted the first evaluation of Kenny’s work in 1934 which led to setting up of many polio clinics in Australia.
In spite of obstructions from doctors, she began treating a patient in his acute stage in her George Street clinic. Later the patient recovered completely in the Polio clinic located in Ward 7 of the Brisbane General Hospital.
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She travelled all over Australia and made two trips to England from 1935 to 1940 to set up clinics.
In 1938 the ‘Queensland Government Royal Commission’ brought out a report criticizing Kenny’s treatment methods. But the Queensland government rejected the report and carried on supporting Kenny and her clinics.
In 1940 Kenny and her adopted daughter Mary travelled to Minneapolis in the US to demonstrate her techniques to the American doctors.
In 1942 she opened a clinic in Minneapolis. She returned to Toowoomba in 1951.
Elizabeth Kenny published her first book titled ‘The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in The Acute Stage’ in 1937.
She co-authored a book titled ‘The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis and its Treatment’ with Dr. John Pohl which was published in 1943.
Her book titled ‘My Battle and Victory: History of the Discovery of Poliomyelitis as a Systemic Disease’ was published posthumously in 1955.
Awards & Achievements
She received honorary degrees from the ‘Rutgers University’ and the ‘University of Rochester’.
In 1951 her name topped the list brought out by ‘Gallup Polls’ as the ‘most admired woman’.
Personal Life & Legacy
She had adopted a daughter named Mary Stewart who went on to become one of her top researchers.
Elizabeth Kenny died of Parkinson’s disease on November 30, 1952 in Toowoomba, Queens, Australia.
‘Sister Kenny Memorial and Children’s Playground’ in Townsville was named in her honor.
Elizabeth Kenny devoted her whole life treating people afflicted by diseases like meningitis, polio and cerebral diplegia.