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Elizabeth Kenny

(1880—1952) nurse and specialist in the treatment of polio


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(1880–1952) developed a controversial treatment for infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis; see epidemics) which earned her international recognition and lifelong ridicule from established medical practitioners. Kenny received the title of ‘Sister’ during her army service in World War I and continued to use it, despite her lack of formal qualifications. Her skills were acquired working as a bush nurse when she first treated polio victims. She returned to home nursing after the war and in 1932, using money from an innovative stretcher that she had designed and patented, established a clinic in Townsville to treat victims of polio and cerebral palsy. Her method, outlined in Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia (1937), involved applying heat and encouraging movement. This was in direct opposition to the existing immobilising treatment and was condemned by a royal commission in 1938. re-examined the controversy in ‘A Small Price to Pay for Peace’ (AHS, 1997). Nevertheless, Kenny received great popular support; other clinics were established, and she travelled to England and the USA to explain and promote her treatments. She became a heroine in America—the first of her autobiographies, And They Shall Walk, was published there in 1943 and a laudatory film, Sister Kenny, appeared in 1946. Although her understanding of the pathology of the disease was still challenged, her treatment became widely accepted by conventional practitioners. A second autobiographical volume, My Battle and Victory, was published in 1955.

From The Oxford Companion to Australian History in Oxford Reference.

Subjects: Australasian and Pacific History.


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