Bucks Medical Establishment to Treat Polio
Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia in 1886.
As a bush nurse, she crossed the Australian outback, treating anyone who could not get to a doctor. She did everything a physician might do, from setting bones to delivering babies. Although Kenny was never trained as a nurse, she earned the title while serving as the Australian medical corps during World War I. (Neither was Kenny a nun. Since nurses in England were traditionally nuns, all nurses were simple called “Sister.”)
In 1911, Kenny, drawing on her knowledge of the musculoskeletal system, treated her first polio (“infantile paralysis”) patient. She applied hot packs to spasming muscles, and the child recovered; the twenty additional children Kenny treated all survived without complications.
Common knowledge at the time suggested that the person’s stronger muscles pulled on the weakened or paralyzed muscles and created the characteristic polio deformities. Kenny believed that the accepted treatment, which was to splint the extremities and hold them rigid, was counterproductive and actually produced both the deformities and paralysis. Instead, she used hot packs to reduce muscle spasms. She also moved the patient’s extremities as if guiding them through physical therapy. Kenny’s methods, though successful, were controversial with the medical authorities in Australia.
In 1942, Kenny established the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. 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. Today, Sister Kenny’s methods continute to be a part of rehabilitative therapy around the world.