Elizabeth Kenny
Elizabeth Kenny was an unqualified Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n nurse who promoted a controversial new approach to the treatment of poliomyelitis
Poliomyelitis, often called polio or infantile paralysis, is an acute viral infectious disease spread from person to person, primarily via the fecal-oral route...

 in the era before mass vaccination eradicated the disease in most countries.


Elizabeth Kenny was born in Warialda, NSW, in 1880. Lisa, as her family called her, was home schooled by her mother before attending schools in New South Wales, and finally Nobby
Nobby, Queensland
Nobby is a small village on the Darling Downs, Queensland. It is located halfway between Toowoomba and Warwick. At the 2006 census, Nobby had a population of 391....

 on the Darling Downs in Queensland. Some time during her 18th year she fell from a horse and broke her wrist. Her father took her to Dr. Aeneas McDonnell in Toowoomba where she was cared for during her convalescence. While there, she studied McDonnell's anatomy books and model skeleton. That began a life-long association with McDonnell, who became her mentor and advisor. She later claimed she became interested in how muscles worked while convalescing from her accident. Instead of using a model skeleton, as they were only available for medical students, she made her own. From the age of 18 until she was in her mid twenties she worked as an unqualified "bush" nurse in the Clifton district. In 1907 she returned to Guyra
Guyra, New South Wales

 to live with a cousin. While there she claimed to have received some basic nursing training from a local midwife, but there is no confirmed record of her undertaking any formal nurse training. She also brokered agricultural sales between Guyra farmers and markets to the north in Brisbane
Brisbane is the capital and most populous city in the Australian state of Queensland and the third most populous city in Australia. Brisbane's metropolitan area has a population of over 2 million, and the South East Queensland urban conurbation, centred around Brisbane, encompasses a population of...

. Contrary to some sources, she was not a member of a religious order. In British Commonwealth nations, the term "Sister" is applied to senior qualified nurses, and does not necessarily indicate a religious vocation.


In 1909, Kenny returned to Nobby and assumed the role of a qualified nurse after paying a tailor to make her a nurse's uniform, complete with cap and cape. Using the money she earned by brokering produce in Guyra, she opened a cottage hospital, St. Canice's, in 1911 in Clifton
Clifton, Queensland
Clifton is a town in the Darling Downs region of Queensland, Australia. The lands around the town was first settled by Europeans in 1840. At the 2006 census, Clifton had a population of 1,067....

, a village about 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) from Nobby. Kenny provided convalescent and midwifery services at St. Canice's, and treated her first confirmed cases of infantile paralysis under the supervision of the local Lodge Doctor.

In 1943 Kenny claimed in her autobiography, co-written with Martha Ostenso, that she had treated her first cases of infantile paralysis in 1910 while working alone as a bush nurse in the Clifton district. That episode was romanticized in the 1946 movie Sister Kenny
Sister Kenny
Sister Kenny is a 1946 biographical film about Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian bush nurse, who fought to help people who suffered from polio, despite opposition from the medical establishment...

starring Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell was an American actress of stage and screen, perhaps best known for her role as a fast-talking newspaper reporter in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday, as well as the role of Mame Dennis in the film Auntie Mame...

. Surveillance records from the early 1900s show that infantile paralysis was a rare disease in Queensland prior to World War 1. ANZSHM conference presentation], although there is reliable evidence sub-acute cases came to Kenny's cottage hospital in Clifton. In her memoir Kenny claimed she was baffled by the cases she encountered and sought assurance from Dr Aeneas McDonnell. He wired back: "...treat them according to the symptoms as they present themselves." Sensing that their muscles were very tight, she did what mothers around the world did: applied hot compress and weights made from woolen blankets to their legs. Kenny wrote in her autobiography that a little girl woke up very much relieved and said: "Please, I want them rags that well my legs." Several children recovered with no serious after-effects. Many years passed before Kenny treated anyone else who might have had polio. The story of Kenny's first encounter with an acute case of polio is one of the great medical legends of the twentieth century, but there is no documented record of the event other than Kenny's memoir. The alleged main witness to her discovery of her method for treating poliomyelitis was Aeneas McDonnell, who died before the story was widely publicised. Press reports from Australia in the 1930s quote Kenny as saying she developed her method while caring for meningitis patients on troop ships during the World War 1.

When World War I began, Kenny volunteered to serve as a nurse. She was not officially qualified, but as nurses were badly needed she was accepted and assigned to "Dark Ships", transports that ran with all lights off between Australia and England carrying war goods and soldiers one way and wounded soldiers and trade goods on the return voyage. Elizabeth Kenny served on these dangerous missions throughout the war, making 16 round trips plus one around the world via the Panama Canal. In 1917 she earned the title of Sister, which in the Australian Army Nurse Corps
Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps
The Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps is a Corps of the Australian Army. It was formed in February 1951 from the Royal Australian Army Nursing Service. A Corps Badge was introduced in 1951 with the motto Pro Humanitate . It embraces the values of compassion and service to others, reflecting the...

 is the equivalent of a First Lieutenant. She used that title for the rest of her life. Some people faulted her for that, because in the British Commonwealth it was reserved for qualified nurses, but Kenny was officially promoted to that rank during her wartime service. During the final months of the war, she served for a few weeks as a matron in a soldier's hospital near Brisbane, but was soon honourably discharged with a pension. Even though exhausted by her war service, she supervised a temporary hospital in Nobby which had been set up to care for victims of the 1919 influenza epidemic.

After the epidemic subsided, Kenny travelled to Guyra to recuperate, without success, so she returned to Europe to visit doctors there. After her return to Nobby, she was called to Guyra by one of her girlhood friends to care for her daughter, Daphne Cregan, who was disabled with Cerebral Diplegia
Cerebral palsy
Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term encompassing a group of non-progressive, non-contagious motor conditions that cause physical disability in human development, chiefly in the various areas of body movement....

. Kenny's three years of rehabilitative work with that child, plus her experience with sick and wounded men during World War I is probably the true foundation for her later work in polio treatment and rehabilitation.

Instead of settling down at home to what was most expected, spinsterhood dedicated to caring for her mother, Kenny continued to work as a nurse from her mother's home. She was often taken to her patients in the side-car-motorcycle or automobile of a family friend. When his daughter Sylvia was injured by falling into the path of a horse-drawn plough he called Kenny for help. She improvised a stretcher out of a cupboard door, fastened Sylvia to it and accompanied her the 26 miles (41.8 km) to Dr. McDonnel's Toowoomba office. Sylvia recovered, mostly due to Kenny's careful attention during that transport. Kenny improved the stretcher for use by the local Ambulance services, and for the next 3 years marketed it as the "Sylvia Stretcher", in Australia, Europe and America. She gave the profits to the Australian Country Women's Association
Country Women's Association
The Country Women’s Association of Australia is the largest women's organisation in Australia. It has 44,000 members across 1855 branches. Its aims are to improve the conditions for country women and children and to try to make life better for women and their families, especially those women...

, who administered the sales and manufacturing.

When sales of the Sylvia Stretcher declined Kenny returned to home nursing. During her sales journeys, Kenny met a family who, in 1929, arranged for her to come to their station west of Townsville
Townsville, Queensland
Townsville is a city on the north-eastern coast of Australia, in the state of Queensland. Adjacent to the central section of the Great Barrier Reef, it is in the dry tropics region of Queensland. Townsville is Australia's largest urban centre north of the Sunshine Coast, with a 2006 census...

 to care for their niece, Maude, who had been disabled with polio. "At the time the normal medical procedure for dealing with infantile paralysis consisted of immobilising the affected limbs in splints," said Jim Franklin. After 18 months under Kenny's care, Maude was able to walk, return to Townsville, marry, and begin a family. The newspapers in Townsville took up the story, calling it a cure. In 1932 Queensland suffered its highest number of polio cases for thirty years. In 1933, several local people helped Kenny set up a basic polio treatment facility under canopies behind the Queens Hotel in Townsville. In a few months, after more success with local children, she was able to move into the bottom floor of the hotel. The 1934 Queensland health department evaluation of her work led to the establishment of Kenny clinics in several cities in Australia. Her success, however, was not without controversy, as many Australian doctors, and the British Medical Association
British Medical Association
The British Medical Association is the professional association and registered trade union for doctors in the United Kingdom. The association does not regulate or certify doctors, a responsibility which lies with the General Medical Council. The association’s headquarters are located in BMA House,...

 questioned her work and success.

It was during these years that Kenny developed her clinical method and gained recognition in Australia. She was adamantly opposed to immobilizing parts of children's bodies with plaster casts or braces. At this time she requested that she be allowed to treat children during the acute stage of the disease and use hot compresses as she claimed to have done in Clifton before the war. However, doctors would not allow her to treat patients until after the first stage of the disease or until tightness (she used the word spasm much later) subsided. For that she instituted a carefully designed regimen of passive exercises designed to recall function in unaffected neural pathway
Neural pathway
A neural pathway, neural tract, or neural face, connects one part of the nervous system with another and usually consists of bundles of elongated, myelin-insulated neurons, known collectively as white matter...

s, much as she had done with Maude. Finally, on her own, she began treatment of a patient in the acute stage in her George St. Clinic in Brisbane, and then transferred her to the Ward 7 Polio clinic in the Brisbane General Hospital. That child, and then others, recovered with far fewer after-effects than those placed in braces. In 1937 she published a basic book about her work and began another, The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in The Acute Stage, which was later published in America. The most comprehensive appraisal of her methods was published in collaboration with Dr John Pohl in 1943.

Between 1935 and 1940 she travelled extensively throughout Australia helping to set up clinics. She also made two trips to England where she set up a treatment clinic in St. Mary's Hospital near Carshalton
Carshalton is a suburban area of the London Borough of Sutton, England. It is located 10 miles south-southwest of Charing Cross, situated in the valley of the River Wandle, one of the sources of which is Carshalton Ponds in the centre of the village. The combined population of the five wards...

 where there is a rehabilitation facility to this day.

The first official evaluation of Sister Kenny's work took place in Townsville in 1934 under the auspices of the Queensland Health Department. Her work was noticed when several Townsville newspaper articles appeared touting her success with polio patients at her clinic in Townsville's Queens Hotel. Dr. Raphael Cilento
Raphael Cilento
Sir Raphael West Cilento , often known as "Ray", was a notable Australian medical practitioner and public health administrator.-Early life and education:...

, who was in charge of the evaluation, wrote a report that was mostly critical, but somewhat complimentary.

Sister Kenny replied publicly: fiercely taking Dr. Cilento to task for his criticisms, something that was very daring and unusual coming from a "self-taught" bush nurse at that time in Australia. Her response was the cause of subsequent contentious associations between her and Dr. Cilento, the BMA and the Australian Medical Association (AMA).

Later, between 1936 and 1938 a Queensland Government Royal Commission evaluated Kenny's work. IN 1938 the Commissioners published their "Report of The Queensland Royal Commission on Modern Methods for the Treatment of Infantile Paralysis". Its most critical comment (because Sister Kenny opposed using splints and plaster casts to immobilize the areas of polio patients affected by the disease) was: "The abandonment of immobilization is a grievous error and fraught with grave danger, especially in very young patients who cannot co-operate in re-education." They stated that her clinic, then in Brisbane, was "admirable". On the whole the Commissioners' strongest objections centered on the fact that the Queensland Government was funding Kenny's work and her clinic was not under the purview of the BMA. The Queensland Government rejected the report, continued to support Kenny's work, and never "officially" accepted it.

In 1940, the Government of New South Wales
New South Wales
New South Wales is a state of :Australia, located in the east of the country. It is bordered by Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to the north, south and west respectively. To the east, the state is bordered by the Tasman Sea, which forms part of the Pacific Ocean. New South Wales...

 sent Kenny and her adopted daughter Mary (who had become an expert in Kenny's method) to America so that they could present her clinical method for treating polio victims to American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 doctors. After a journey by sea from Sydney to Los Angeles, and by railway to San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, back to Chicago, and to the Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic
Mayo Clinic is a not-for-profit medical practice and medical research group specializing in treating difficult patients . Patients are referred to Mayo Clinic from across the U.S. and the world, and it is known for innovative and effective treatments. Mayo Clinic is known for being at the top of...

 in Rochester, Minnesota
Rochester, Minnesota
Rochester is a city in the U.S. state of Minnesota and is the county seat of Olmsted County. Located on both banks of the Zumbro River, The city has a population of 106,769 according to the 2010 United States Census, making it Minnesota's third-largest city and the largest outside of the...

, she was finally given a chance to demonstrate her work in Minneapolis-St. Paul Minnesota. Doctors Miland Knapp and John Pohl, who headed polio treatment centres there were impressed and told her that she should: "Stick around." They found an apartment for Kenny and Mary, and a few years later the City of Minneapolis
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis , nicknamed "City of Lakes" and the "Mill City," is the county seat of Hennepin County, the largest city in the U.S. state of Minnesota, and the 48th largest in the United States...

 gave them a house. Minneapolis was Kenny's "base" in America for eleven years. In a 1943 letter to the British Medical Journal
British Medical Journal
BMJ is a partially open-access peer-reviewed medical journal. Originally called the British Medical Journal, the title was officially shortened to BMJ in 1988. The journal is published by the BMJ Group, a wholly owned subsidiary of the British Medical Association...

, Kenny noted that "there have been upwards of 300 doctors attending the classes at the University of Minnesota".

During that time Kenny treatment centres were opened throughout America, the two most important being the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis, (now the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Associates,) a facility in New Jersey Medical Center, and her favourite, the "Ruth Home", in El Monte, California
El Monte, California
El Monte is a residential, industrial, and commercial city in Los Angeles County, California, United States. The city's slogan is "Welcome to Friendly El Monte," and historically is known as "The End of the Santa Fe Trail." As of the 2010 census, the city had a total population of 113,475,...

. She became an American celebrity, received honorary degrees from Rutgers and the University of Rochester
University of Rochester
The University of Rochester is a private, nonsectarian, research university in Rochester, New York, United States. The university grants undergraduate and graduate degrees, including doctoral and professional degrees. The university has six schools and various interdisciplinary programs.The...

, and had lunch with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Delano Roosevelt , also known by his initials, FDR, was the 32nd President of the United States and a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States during a time of worldwide economic crisis and world war...

, discussing his treatment at Warm Springs. Kenny was the subject of many articles in American periodicals. Victor Cohn, who wrote the first detailed biography of her life and work, noted that her relentless pursuit of publicity eventually lead to journalists tiring of her campaign Some of my own Sister Kenny memories and impressions.

In 1946 her story was dramatized in the film Sister Kenny
Sister Kenny
Sister Kenny is a 1946 biographical film about Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian bush nurse, who fought to help people who suffered from polio, despite opposition from the medical establishment...

, starring Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell was an American actress of stage and screen, perhaps best known for her role as a fast-talking newspaper reporter in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy His Girl Friday, as well as the role of Mame Dennis in the film Auntie Mame...

, who had become her close friend. Through Kenny's accomplishments, in 1951 she headed the Gallup poll's Most Admired Women list
Gallup's most admired man and woman poll
Gallup’s most admired man and woman poll is an annual poll that Gallup has conducted at the end of virtually every single year since 1948. Americans are asked, without prompting, to say what man and woman "living today in any part of the world, do [they] admire most?" The result is published as a...

, the only woman in the first 10 years of the list to displace Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was the First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945. She supported the New Deal policies of her husband, distant cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and became an advocate for civil rights. After her husband's death in 1945, Roosevelt continued to be an international...

 for the #1 spot.

Kenny's work was, however, controversial. During her first year in Minneapolis the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) paid her personal expenses, and financed and arranged trials of her work. That support ceased after a series of disagreements. Kenny was a very determined and outspoken woman, which irritated the director of the NFIP and many doctors. As a result the Sister Kenny Foundation was established in Minneapolis to support her and her work throughout America.
Kenny filled her final years with journeys in America, Europe and Australia in an effort to gain further acceptance of her method. She returned home to Toowoomba in 1951, where she died of complications from Parkinson's disease
Parkinson's disease
Parkinson's disease is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system...

 on 30 November 1952. She was buried beside her mother in Nobby cemetery.


Upon her leave in the United States, Kenny faced many sceptical doctors. She needed to get the American Medical Association
American Medical Association
The American Medical Association , founded in 1847 and incorporated in 1897, is the largest association of medical doctors and medical students in the United States.-Scope and operations:...

's support for her method. The AMA director at that time saw her as an "ignorant quack seeking money for her own gain". Many doctors found their initial professional scepticism was groundless when they saw the dramatic effects that Kenny's method had on her patients, both children and adults.


Between 1934 and her death in 1952 Kenny and her associates only treated a few thousand patients, but her methods were used to treat many thousands of polio victims throughout the world. Their testimonies to Sister Kenny's healing work is part of her legacy; as is The Kenny Concept of Infantile Paralysis, and Its Treatment, known as "The Red Book," written by Dr. John Pohl in collaboration with Kenny. Her most enduring legacy is the Minneapolis Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute
The Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, located at 28th Street and Chicago Avenue in Minneapolis, is the leading rehabilitation provider in the region. The Institute is named after Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian woman trained in nursing — the title “Sister” is used in British countries to...


In Kenny's home village of Nobby the Sister Kenny Memorial House holds many artifacts from Kenny's life plus a considerable collection of documents from her private correspondence as well as numerous papers and newspaper clippings. In Toowoomba the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Memorial Fund Inc. provides scholarships to students attending the University of Southern Queensland
University of Southern Queensland
The University of Southern Queensland is based in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. The institution was established in 1967 as the Queensland Institute of Technology...

 who will dedicate themselves to work in rural and remote areas of Australia. In Townsville, her life was commemorated in 1949 by the unveiling of the Sister Kenny Memorial and Children's playground.

Her principles of muscle rehabilitation became the foundation of physical therapy
Physical therapy
Physical therapy , often abbreviated PT, is a health care profession. Physical therapy is concerned with identifying and maximizing quality of life and movement potential within the spheres of promotion, prevention, diagnosis, treatment/intervention,and rehabilitation...

, (in some countries called physiotherapy
Physical therapy
Physical therapy , often abbreviated PT, is a health care profession. Physical therapy is concerned with identifying and maximizing quality of life and movement potential within the spheres of promotion, prevention, diagnosis, treatment/intervention,and rehabilitation...


Sister Kenny is referred to in the TV movie An American Christmas Carol, where the young "Tiny Tim" character, Jonathan, would be sent for treatment for his disability (never referred to specifically as polio). Her treatments are also suggested to be the basis for Livy Walton's recovery in The Waltons
The Waltons
The Waltons is an American television series created by Earl Hamner, Jr., based on his book Spencer's Mountain, and a 1963 film of the same name. The show centered on a family growing up in a rural Virginia community during the Great Depression and World War II. The series pilot was a television...

first season episode "An Easter Story". Livy's will to walk again after polio leads her to take the chance that Kenny's methods might work.

Cartoonist and amputee Al Capp
Al Capp
Alfred Gerald Caplin , better known as Al Capp, was an American cartoonist and humorist best known for the satirical comic strip Li'l Abner. He also wrote the comic strips Abbie an' Slats and Long Sam...

 was involved with the Sister Kenny Foundation in the 1940s and '50s. In his capacity as honorary chairman, Capp made public appearances on its behalf, contributed artwork for its annual fund-raising appeals, and entertained crippled and paraplegic children in children's hospitals with pep talks, humorous stories and sketches.

Alan Alda
Alan Alda
Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo , better known as Alan Alda, is an American actor, director, screenwriter, and author. A six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner, he is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H...

 credits the Sister Kenny treatments he received from his mother as a young boy for his complete recovery from polio and has publicly stated, including in his autobiography, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, that he sees no question as to their efficacy.

People known to have received treatment

  • Alan Alda
    Alan Alda
    Alphonso Joseph D'Abruzzo , better known as Alan Alda, is an American actor, director, screenwriter, and author. A six-time Emmy Award and Golden Globe Award winner, he is best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H...

    , actor
  • Robert Anton Wilson
    Robert Anton Wilson
    Robert Anton Wilson , known to friends as "Bob", was an American author and polymath who became at various times a novelist, philosopher, psychologist, essayist, editor, playwright, poet, futurist, civil libertarian and self-described agnostic mystic...

    , writer
  • Marjorie Lawrence
    Marjorie Lawrence
    Marjorie Florence Lawrence CBE was an Australian soprano, particularly noted as an interpreter of Richard Wagner's operas. She was the first soprano to perform the immolation scene in Götterdämmerung by riding her horse into the flames as Wagner had intended. She was afflicted by polio from 1941...

    , Australian Operatic Singer
  • Rosalind Russell's nephew
  • Peg Kehret
    Peg Kehret
    Peg Kehret is an American writer. Her writing primarily targets younger children between the ages of 8 and 14....

     (née Schulze), American author

Additional resources

• Copies of current articles and debate, plus key documents originating from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, are available from The Sister Kenny Network
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