Sister Elizabeth Kenny – pioneering nurse who took on the establishment

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  Last updated April 30, 2018 at 10:56 am

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‘It is better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life.’


Sister Elizabeth Kenny in uniform during the Great War. Credit: Australian War Memorial


The annual commemoration of ANZAC day will always be an occasion of remembrance. To tell stories of war, share in the mateship of tradition and honour the men and women who have served our country.


Although her story is not as well known as some, Sister Elizabeth Kenny had a resilience and determination forged during the First World War  as a nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), serving on hospital ships that brought home the wounded.


But it was her later revolutionary work with children suffering from polio, developed despite receiving no formal medical training, for which she left a lasting impression on Australian rural communities and the metropolitan hospitals of America.


Along the way, she also challenged the patriarchal standards of the medical field and, while she was eventually vindicated, drew hostility from doctors and the scientific establishment.


Born in 1880 in New South Wales, Kenny always had a natural interest in biology and medicine. As a young student, she often volunteered at a small maternity hospital in Guyra, learning by the bedside from various medical professionals.


Medical miracles on the Darling Downs


It was this experience that would mark the beginning of her fascinating career. In her early 30s, Kenny became a self-appointed nurse and worked from the family home on the Darling Downs, a sheep farming region in southern Queensland.


Riding on horseback, she delivered her services free of charge to anyone who called, arriving promptly to administer minor care.


On the advice of Toowoomba surgeon Aeneas McDonnell, she experimented with applying hot, moist cloths to treat early cases of poliomyelitis, diagnosed then as a unique form of infantile paralysis.


When many patients seemed to be recovering, Kenny opened a cottage hospital in Clifton to encourage further treatment.


The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 was the chance for Kenny to put her medical skills to the test.


Although her commitment was delayed due to no registration as a nurse, Kenny enlisted on 30 May 1915 and was appointed staff nurse in the Australian Army Nursing Service.


Working aboard medical ships transporting wounded troops back home, she was promoted to Sister on 1 November 1917; continuing to use the title long after her service terminated in March 1919.


For Sylvia


On her return home, Kenny resumed her nursing practices and became the first president of the Nobby chapter of the Country Women’s Association.


With her newly acquired medical training, it was a particular instance of treating a young girl who had fallen in the path of a plough that inspired her next medical invention.


Country roads are prone to potholes and ditches, especially in wet weather. When the road to the nearest hospital proved to be a bumpy ride, Kenny improvised with the door of her linen cupboard to create a solid, portable stretcher, reducing the shock of transport for her injured patient.


In 1927, she patented the ambulance stretcher, despite its inability to be used for other medical transference.


‘The battle must go on.’


Five years later, a relocation to Townsville and the establishment of a backyard clinic signified another start for the practising nurse.


At this time, a major polio epidemic was severely affecting the lives of Australian children. An infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, its destruction of nerve cells in the spinal cord leads to the deterioration of muscular movement and strength; forcing sufferers to rely on walking aids or become completely bedridden.


Sister Kenny’s young patients. Credit Queensland State Archives.


While the approved treatment was limited physical activity and the use of splints and confining braces to prevent muscular deformation, Kenny was unaware of these practices. Instead she treated long-term poliomyelitis and cerebral palsy patients with hot baths, warm medicated lotions and the encouragement of passive but constant movement – to which many of the patients responded.


Striking out in a different direction to that of male health professionals was inevitably going to be a source of controversy.


Ridiculed and chastised for her rejection of recommendations, Kenny was alienated by the medical community for her “bizarre” management of polio.



‘I was wholly unprepared for the extraordinary attitude of the medical world in its readiness to condemn anything that smacked of reform or that ran contrary to approved methods of practice.’



Despite this opposition, parents of young patients and her medical acquaintances pressed the Queensland government into action.


In 1934, clinics to treat long-term polio cases with her methods opened in Townsville and Brisbane, providing affordable and effective care to numerous sufferers.


Kenny’s outreach grew fast.


In 1937, she published Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia, and was later given two wards at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Surrey, England.


Overseas, British doctors also condemned her unorthodox approaches, and upon arriving home, she was further isolated by a scathing report of a royal commission of prominent Queensland doctors.


But despite this, Kenny was given a ward at the Brisbane General Hospital and more patients to care for.


Then, backed by six Queensland doctors, a government-funded trip to America in 1940 – though initially met with more rejection – was the catalyst for wider acceptance.


After applying her methods to patients at the Minneapolis General Hospital, and organising courses for international doctors and physiotherapists, The Sister Kenny Institute was established in 1942 – finally to medical acclaim.


Honour at last


The following year, Kenny published her autobiography And They Shall Walk, received honourary degrees and lectured at various universities and institutions across the world.


Kenny was later praised in 1946 with the film Sister Kenny, a portrayal of her tireless dedication to saving young lives.


Sister Kenny with her secretary in her garden, Toowoomba, 1952. Credit John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.


After her death in 1952, the ‘Kenny method’ was officially accepted as standard nursing and physiotherapy treatment, remaining popular until the development of a preventative vaccine in 1955.


If at times a little dogmatic, Sister Kenny’s unfailing pursuit of her cause is remarkable. As a war veteran, persistent nurse and empathetic guardian, her work certainly made an important contribution towards polio treatment and encouraged informed, refreshing conversation.


On ANZAC day, Kenny is a symbol of the many women who have made their imprints on history through resolve and integrity.




About the Author

Alayna Hansen
A freelance science writer based in Melbourne, Australia. I've been curious about science and the natural world for as long as I've been able to talk the leg off an iron pot. If you can't find me at a zoo, observatory, or running around with a microphone, I'm probably imitating David Attenborough documentaries again.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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