Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sister Elizabeth Kenny

Nurse & Battler Against Polio (1880-1952)

Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia, the daughter of an Irish farmer. She spent her childhood on the Darling Downs. Elizabeth had little education and there is no record of any formal training or of her registration as a nurse.

Elizabeth Kenny was a self appointed nurse (c.1910), working from the family home as Nobby on the Darling Downs, and riding on horseback to give her services without pay to anyone who called. She used hot cloth formentations on the advice of Aeneas McDonnell, a Toowoomba surgeon, to treat symptomatically puzzling new cases (c.1911) diagnosed by him telegraphically as infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis - polio). The patients recovered.

During WW1, using a letter from McDonnell as evidence of her nursing experience, Elizabeth Kenny enlisted and was appointed staff nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service, serving on troopships bringing home the wounded. She invented and patented a stretcher for the transporting of the wounded. She was promoted to Sister (1917), a title she used for the rest of her life.

Elizabeth Kenny established (1932) a backyard clinic at Townsville to treat long-term polio victims and cerebal palsy patients with hot baths, forments, passive movements, the discarding of braces and calipers and the encouragement of active moments. Doctors and massuers ridiculed her, considering her explanations of the lesions at the site of the paralysis to be bizzare. Thus began a long controversy at the time when there was no vaccination for polio. The strong-willed Kenny, with an obsessional belief in her theory and methods, was opposed by a conservative medical profession whom she mercilessly slated and who considered her recommendation to discard immobilisation to be criminal.

In the USA, however, Eliabeth Kenny's methods became widely accepted and the Sister Kenny Institute was built in Minneapolis. Other clinics were established in her name and Elizabeth Kenny, who remained unmarried, was eulogised in a full-length feature film in the USA. The American Congress (1950) gave her the rare honour of free access to American without entry formalities.

But depsite this success, Elizabeth Kenny remained in bitter controversy, partly because of her intolerance of opposition, and returned to Australia several times with little acclaim. Although Elizabeth Kenny's view of the pathology of polio were generally not accepted it was agreed that she stimulated much fresh thinking on the subject.

Elizabeth Kenny developed Parkinsons Disease (1952), and retired and died in Toowoomba (1952). Her book "My Battle and Victory" was published posthumously (1955).

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