Born in 1880 New South Wales, Australia, Elizabeth Kenny grew up as a tomboy preferring to spend her time outdoors. Always empathetic to the injured and the sick, she eventually dedicated her life to nursing; but because her only medical training came from apprenticing herself to a local doctor, the British medical system would not recognize her as a legitimate nurse.
At the age of eighteen Elizabeth went to the bush area of Australia to help provide medical assistance to the rural residents. She stayed for several years, and it would be this experience that propelled her into a lifelong career of ministering to the sick. In 1909 she went to live in Nobby, Queensland, Australia and supported herself by setting up a business where she brokered agricultural produce from farmers to metropolitan markets. From the success of that business, she was able to use the proceeds to set up her first ‘cottage hospital’. Knowing she lacked official credentials, she asked a tailor to fashion a nurse’s uniform so she would appear more authoritative, and perhaps ease patients’ anxieties. Shortly after setting up the clinic, she met a few children who had become sick with a disease that often progressed to paralysis of the legs. There was no known cure, but it did have a name – polio.
Not understanding exactly how the disease started, or how to prevent it, Elizabeth concentrated instead on helping its young victims possibly regain the use of their immobilized leg muscles. Her approaches were un-orthodox, but she began to see amazing results. She taught mothers how to wrap their children’s afflicted legs in moist warm rags, gently stretch the legs, and massage the damaged muscles. Day after day she worked side by side with the mothers to coax the children’s injured muscles back to life. Slowly, many of the children resumed mobility.
World War I broke out and Elizabeth offered her services as a volunteer nurse. Even though she had no certified medical training, nurses were in short supply and she was chosen to serve on transport ships that carried supplies to England and brought wounded soldiers back to Australia.
Returning home after the war, she resumed her battle against polio. She wrote locally about the success of her treatments with the hope that doctors might implement some of her techniques. But the British government refused to promote her treatments because the current practice was to immobilize the afflicted leg in plaster casts or splints for months at a time.
Word of her success with polio patients slowly spread, mostly by her own self-promulgation and the parents who had hailed her techniques as life altering. It is said that mothers wept when they saw their children walk again.
We now know that polio, or poliomyelitis as it is medically known, is an acute viral infection spread by human contact through ingested feces’ particles. Only a tiny trace is needed to transmit the virus. Depictions of people crippled with the disease appear in ancient Egyptian art, so we know the illness has been around for several millenniums. Polio began to reach epidemic proportions during the mid-19th century in Europe when thousands of people flocked to the cities for work and found themselves living in overcrowded tenements coupled with unsanitary surroundings and contaminated water. By 1910 there was a dramatic increase in polio world-wide and it was noted that the disease would peak during the summer months. Suspecting that contaminated water might carry the disease, public swimming pools were shut down during the worst epidemics.
One of the most dreaded diseases of childhood, the polio virus took only 2 – 10 days to penetrate the bloodstream and lodge in the spinal cord. Paralysis began to attack the muscles, most often in the legs, and left the victim either unable to walk or saddled with a withered limb.
Between 1935 and 1940 Elizabeth traveled extensively in Australia helping to organize clinics that would utilize her methods. Then in 1940 the government of New South Wales funded a trip for Elizabeth to speak to American doctors. She settled in Minneapolis where the University of Minnesota recommended that their doctors attend her lectures. Elizabeth stayed on in America for 11 years, promoting her unorthodox treatments of warm wraps and muscle massages and exercises. ‘Kenny clinics’ sprang up across the country with parents desperate to try Elizabeth’s techniques. Meanwhile, doctors around the world raced to find a cure.
Often perceived by the British Medical Association as a quack, and seen as a ‘fame-seeker’ by those who were rankled by Elizabeth’s outspoken manner, she none-the-less persevered in her fight against polio. Elizabeth died back home in Australia in 1952, right before Jonas Salk’s team of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a vaccine against polio that provided 99% immunity. Ten years later Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine which became the gold standard and still used world-wide today.
But it was Elizabeth Kenny’s techniques that alerted the world to the possibility of new methods to fight an old disease. Her principles of stretching and exercising injured muscles eventually became the foundation for today’s rehabilitative science of physical therapy. Thousands of children walked again because of her methods. As one adult survivor of polio noted, he leads a full life today because his mother exercised his legs daily in the method established by Elizabeth Kenny. That survivor is actor Alan Alda.
In spite of all our modern medical technology, there is still no cure for polio, only immunization.
It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Sometimes it takes a strong woman to pursue innovations of treating a sick child.
As always, thank you to Dixie Hallaj for proofing and editing this blog.