Sister Elizabeth Kenny

Elizabeth Kenny faced opposition throughout her career, despite being the first person to effectively treat infantile paralysis in 1911.

Honour Roll

Elizabeth Kenny was born in 1880, at Warialda, New South Wales. She received limited schooling. Her interest in medicine was aroused when, as a thirteen year old, she broke her wrist and stayed with Dr Aeneas McDonnell in Toowoomba. She became fascinated with muscle structure and learnt much from the doctor in his spare time.

Elizabeth found her calling in voluntary work at a small maternity home in Guyra. A local doctor wrote her a reference, so she bought herself a nurse's uniform and began working as Nurse Kenny. Though untrained she was competent and caring and rode on horseback in the Darling Downs area, treating people for whatever fee or barter they could afford.

In June 1911, she tried to treat a young girl who could not move. Dr McDonnell diagnosed the child with infantile paralysis for which there was no known cure. Elizabeth found that hot cloth fomentations relieved the pain and then she encouraged the child to move her paralysed limbs so that the muscles wouldn't waste away. She began treating other children who contracted the disease and all of them recovered. Her method went against the orthodox medical treatment, which sought to immobilise the limbs by placing them in splints.

During World War I, Elizabeth enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service and worked on troopships bringing wounded servicemen home to Australia. She invented and patented the 'Sylvia' ambulance stretcher, which was designed to reduce jolting of accident victims. Its success provided her with a healthy income.

In 1931, she established a makeshift clinic in Townsville to treat poliomyelitis victims and cerebral palsy patients in the manner she had devised previously. She charged no fee but relied on public donation. She was constantly met with opposition from the medical profession. Meanwhile her popularity grew and new clinics opened using her methods in Brisbane, Toowoomba and Sydney.

In 1937, her fare was paid to England where she worked at the Queen Mary's Hospital for Children at Carshalton. In 1938, she returned to Australia to be damned by a Royal Commission into her treatment, despite the fact that patients were improving under her rehabilitation. Some doctors and governments did support her, but in 1940, she and her daughter left for the United States. It was there that she achieved her greatest success and went on to become a household name as Kenny clinics were established around the country. She conducted courses for doctors and physiotherapists from around the world.

When she returned to Australia in 1947 she found that her methods were still opposed. She died of cerebro-vascular disease on 30 November 1952. The method of treatment she devised was successful and the conviction with which she spread her knowledge, in the face of overwhelming opposition, is her remarkable achievement.