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Sister Kenny

Noeleen Kennedy,


Elizabeth Kenny was born on 20th September 1880 at Wairalda, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. Her father was Michael Kenny, a farmer who had migrated to Australia from Ireland and married a local girl, Mary Moore.

Although there is no record of Elizabeth having done formal training, nor having been registered as a nurse, she volunteered at a small maternity hospital in NSW where she no doubt learned the basics of nursing. Having moved interstate, around 1910 she began riding on horseback to outback properties on the Darling Downs in Queensland (QLD) to nurse sick people who needed her, She did this as a service without any payment.

Elizabeth Kenny

It was 1911 when Elizabeth first used hot fomentations on the advice of a Toowoomba surgeon, to treat a puzzling new disease that he called Infantile Paralysis (Poliomyelitis). The patient recovered and Nurse Kenny as she was known then, opened a cottage hospital in Clifton. When World War One eventuated Dr Aeeneas McDonnell, who had advised her on the hot fomentations, gave Elizabeth a letter as evidence of her nursing experience which enabled her to join the Australian Army Nursing Service (ANNS) in 1915 as a Staff Nurse. She bravely served many dangerous missions on troopships bringing the wounded Diggers home to Australia. In 1917 Nurse Kenny was promoted to Sister Kenny and Elizabeth used this title for the rest of her life. After the war Sister Kenny re-enlisted and worked at Enoggera Military Hospital near Brisbane until she became very ill and was discharged permanently from the ANNS on 28th March 1919 with a war pension. Elizabeth returned home to Nobby to have a well earned rest, but this was not to be, as she was asked to assist with the influenza outbreak hitting the area.

Sister Kenny’s first Polio Clinic was established in Townsville QLD in 1933 under an awning in a backyard of a house. Her treatments were controversial from the start, she did not believe in splints or casts as did the medical profession, Sister Kenny believed in retraining the affected muscles. She promoted hot packs and exercising the limbs which was in direct contrast to medical opinion. But this did not deter Sister Kenny in her long crusade to help children with polio.

In 1937 her fare was paid to the United Kingdom by parents grateful for the help given to their children and she was given space at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Surrey coming up against English doctors who did not agree with her methods of discarding splints as was the general practice to prevent deformities caused by poliomyelitis. Elizabeth returned home to Australia only to find a royal commission report of Queensland doctors damning her methods. Not deterred Elizabeth fought for a ward at Brisbane General Hospital where she treated early cases of polio. The then medical superintendant Aubrey Pye was said to have stated that the patients she treated recovered more speedily and with more supple limbs than patients treated by orthodox methods, but she was still largely ignored by the medical profession.

In 1940 Sister Kenny headed to the USA, her fare this time was paid by the Queensland Government, with an introduction signed by several Brisbane doctors to the famous Mayo Clinic. Once again she faced opposition and rejection by some doctors who did not agree with her methods. However a group of orthopaedic doctors who saw merit in her work arranged for her to be allocated beds at Minneapolis General Hospital and it was here her methods became widely accepted. Soon Sister Kenny was training doctors and physiotherapists from all over the world in her methods and in 1942 the first Sister Kenny Institute was established in Minneapolis followed by other Kenny clinics.

Sister Kenny was hailed as a heroine in the USA, receiving many honours in that country and was given the rare honour of free access into the USA. This meant she could come and go without formalities when she lectured around the world. Although she returned to Australia many times during this stage of her life she was still surrounded by controversy, not receiving the same acclaim as experienced in America.

The film Sister Kenny starring Rosalind Russell in the title role opened in New York on 29th September 1946 where 20,000 people gathered in Times Square to get a glimpse of Elizabeth. Miss Russell did not attend the premier, leaving the spotlight to fall on Sister Kenny.

After developing Parkinsons Disease Elizabeth returned home to Australia in 1951 to retire in Toowoomba, dying of cerebro-vascular disease on 30th November 1952, sadly never knowing of the Salk vaccine announced in 1955. Sister Kenny is buried in the Nobby cemetery and you can find a bust of her displayed in the Toowoomba Art Gallery. Although unmarried she was survived by her adopted daughter Mary Stewart whom she adopted at the age of eight years old in 1926.

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Additional resources

Infantile Paralysis & Cerebral Diplegia
by Elizabth Kenny Foreward by Professor Herbert Wilkinson

And They Shall Walk
Autobiography by Elizabeth Kenny in collaboration with Martha Ostenso

Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors
by V. Cohn


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