Elizabeth Kenny

Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952), nurse, was born on 20 September 1880 at Warialda, New South Wales, fifth child of Mary (born Moore) and Irish immigrant Michael Kenny, farmer. Elizabeth was an independent, energetic and capable child who from an early age spent much of her time on horseback. Her formal education was the usual few years basic schooling, gained erratically in one-room country schools on the northern tablelands of New South Wales. In the 1890s the family settled on the Darling Downs, Queensland, where Elizabeth dabbled in a variety of jobs - piano teacher, domestic help, housekeeper. In 1907 she returned for a time to Guyra, where she may have had hospital experience. The story that she was a successful produce agent is probably apocryphal, but such enterprise and unladylike behaviour was characteristic.

She was befriended by Dr Aeneas McDonnell of Toowoomba, and with his help and encouragement she gained a thorough knowledge of human musculature. Though she did not formally train as a nurse and was never registered, she acquired nursing skills, probably in country hospitals, and did private nursing. In 1911, with no previous knowledge of the disease, she successfully treated several cases of infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis). By 1913 she had set up her own small hospital at Clifton, near Toowoomba.

In 1915 she joined the Australian Army Nursing Service. Her wartime tour of duty, twelve round sea voyages between England and Australia with the returning wounded, earned her promotion to Sister, a title she never relinquished. This experience prompted her invention in 1926 of an ambulance stretcher designed to minimise shock over rough country roads. She took leave from bush nursing to travel first to Sydney and then overseas to sell her Sylvia Stretcher which she had patented. With the proceeds and her war pension she was financially independent.

Sister Kenny had relied on her own keen observation and intelligence in treating poliomyelitis. The orthodox medical treatment, on the belief that the muscles were irreversibly paralysed, called for rigid splinting and immobilisation, followed in some cases by surgical intervention. Muscles atrophied and bones were drained of calcium, leaving polio victims deformed and pain-ridden. Sister Kenny believed muscles were in spasm. She worked with the mind and body against 'muscle spasm, incoordination and mental alienation'. In 1930 she treated a crippled child in Townsville and her success attracted further patients. She established a clinic and in 1933 applied for government subsidy. She published a textbook in 1937.

After an initially favourable response, orthodox medical men turned against her. She was allowed to treat some patients at the Brisbane Children's Hospital but access to patients was made difficult and her nurses were not permitted to mix with other nursing staff nor wear the usual uniform. The 'untrained' Miss Kenny was ridiculed for the 'naivety' of her lectures. She claimed she was denied hospital space and allowed to treat only long-standing cases already deformed by orthodox treatment. Yet there were eight subsidised Kenny clinics in operation in Queensland and other states in 1938 when a royal commission, appointed in 1935 to inquire into her methods, published its report. Chaired by Sir Raphael Cilento, it damned her and her methods. He had turned against her believing the resources could be better used elsewhere in the hospital system. Kenny complained of a 'cruel vendetta' against her.

She won doctors' support and public acclaim in the United States, where in 1942 the Elizabeth Kenny Institute was opened in Minneapolis. With her adopted daughter, Mary Stewart, Sister Kenny lived and worked in America from 1940-50, publishing four more books, including an autobiography. She died in Toowoomba on 30 November 1952, a year before the Salk polio vaccine became available. She clung courageously to her convictions in the face of virulent opposition and personal attack from the medical profession Her principles were ultimately incorporated into the treatment of poliomyelitis and other conditions: the Minneapolis Sister Kenny Institute now operates as a centre for the study and rehabilitation of victims of spinal cord injuries. She left a desk and prayer-book, which once belonged to Florence Nightingale, to the United Nations Organisation.

Sue Mackie

Victor Cohn Sister Kenny: the Woman who Challenged the Doctors 1975.