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Elizabeth Kenny (1880–1952)

by Ross Patrick

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Elizabeth Kenny, c.1917

Elizabeth Kenny, c.1917

State Library of Queensland, 171668

Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952), nurse, was born on 20 September 1880 at Warialda, New South Wales, daughter of Michael Kenny, farmer from Ireland, and his native-born wife Mary, née Moore. She received limited education at small primary schools in New South Wales and Queensland. There is no official record of formal training or registration as a nurse. She probably learned by voluntary assistance at a small maternity hospital at Guyra, New South Wales. About 1910 Kenny was a self-appointed nurse, working from the family home at Nobby on the Darling Downs, riding on horseback to give her services, without pay, to any who called her. She later claimed that, during this period, she used hot cloth fomentations on the advice of Aeneas McDonnell, a Toowoomba surgeon, to treat symptomatically puzzling new cases, diagnosed by him telegraphically as infantile paralysis (poliomyelitis). The patients recovered. Kenny then conducted a private hospital at Clifton from 1912 to 1915.

Wishing to serve in World War I, Kenny sailed for Britain in June 1915, arriving in London in August. She obtained a position as a civilian nurse aboard the transport Seuvic, which sailed for Australia in October, repatriating invalid soldiers.  The following year, without formal enrolment, she succeeded in becoming a full-time member of the Australian Army Nursing Service in the Australian Imperial Force. In 1917 she was promoted to sister, a title she used for the rest of her life. Serving with No. 1 Section, Sea Transport Staff, she made eleven more voyages between Australia and Britain, before her AIF appointment was terminated on 28 March 1919. After the war she resumed her home nursing and became the first president of the Nobby chapter of the Country Women's Association. In 1927 she patented the 'Sylvia' ambulance stretcher designed to reduce shock in the transport of injured patients.

In 1932 Sister Kenny established a backyard clinic at Townsville to treat long-term poliomyelitis victims and cerebral palsy patients with hot baths, foments, passive movements, the discarding of braces and callipers and the encouragement of active movements. At a government-sponsored demonstration in Brisbane doctors and masseurs ridiculed her, mainly because they considered her explanations of the lesions at the site of the paralysis were bizarre. Thus began a long controversy at a time when there was no vaccination for poliomyelitis. The strong-willed Kenny, with an obsessional belief in her theory and methods, was opposed by a conservative medical profession whom she mercilessly slated and who considered her recommendation to discard immobilization to be criminal. Despite almost total medical opposition, parental and political pressure with some medical backing resulted in action by the Queensland government which was influenced by Home Secretary E. M. Hanlon and his public service adviser, C. E. Chuter. In 1934 clinics to treat long-term poliomyelitis cases were established in Townsville and later in Brisbane. The Brisbane clinic immediately attracted interstate and overseas patients. Kenny clinics in other Queensland cities and interstate followed.

In 1937 she published in Sydney Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia, with a foreword by Herbert Wilkinson, professor of anatomy at the University of Queensland. Grateful parents having paid her fare to England, she was given two wards at Queen Mary's Hospital at Carshalton, Surrey. She shocked English doctors with her recommendations to discard splinting used to prevent deformities and her condemnation of the orthodox treatment of poliomyelitis cases. Returning to Australia, she was greeted with the report of a royal commission of leading Queensland doctors which damned her methods. However, she was given a ward at the Brisbane General Hospital and early cases of the disease to treat. Aubrey Pye, medical superintendent, stated that her patients recovered more quickly and that their limbs were more supple than those treated by the orthodox method. But the medical profession largely ignored her.

In 1940, armed with an introduction to the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, signed by six Brisbane doctors and her fare paid by the Queensland government, she arrived in the United States of America. At first most doctors rejected her theories of 'spasm', 'mental alienation', and 'incoordination' by which she explained the disability caused by poliomyelitis. However, orthopaedists Miland Knapp, John Pohl and Wallace Cole arranged for her to be given beds in the Minneapolis General Hospital. Her methods became widely accepted. She began courses for doctors and physiotherapists from many parts of the world. The Sister Kenny Institute was built in Minneapolis in 1942 and other Kenny clinics were established.

Kenny became a heroine in America and was awarded many honours. She accepted numerous invitations to lecture in other countries and received honorary degrees. Her autobiography, And They Shall Walk, written in collaboration with Martha Ostenso, was published in New York in 1943. In 1946 she was eulogized in the film, Sister Kenny. Abraham Fryberg, Queensland director-general of health and medical services, and Thomas Stubbs Brown, orthopaedic specialist, after an overseas visit recommended in 1947 that treatment based on the Kenny method be used in the early stages. They argued, however, that her concept that the disabilities in poliomyelitis were caused by the virus invading peripheral tissues, and not the central nervous system as traditionally taught, was not proven. In 1950 Congress gave her the rare honour of free access to the United States without entry formalities. Despite this success, she remained the centre of bitter controversy, partly because of her intolerance of opposition, and returned to Australia several times with little acclaim.

A big woman, with white hair which she often covered with large hats, Elizabeth Kenny was an imposing figure. She could speak gently to a patient one minute and harshly criticize a doctor the next. She gained basic knowledge as she progressed and, at times, submitted other people's ideas as though they were her own. Although her views on the pathology of the disease were generally not accepted, she made a significant contribution towards the treatment of poliomyelitis and stimulated fresh thinking. Developing Parkinson's disease, she retired to Toowoomba in 1951 and died there of cerebro-vascular disease on 30 November 1952. After a service in the Neil Street Methodist Church, she was buried in Nobby cemetery. Unmarried, she was survived by an adopted daughter. Her estate, valued for probate at £17,117, was left mainly to relatives, but a collection of memorabilia was left to the Kenny Foundation in the United States and a desk and prayer-book, belonging once to Florence Nightingale, were left to the United Nations Organization. Her book, My Battle and Victory, was published posthumously in London in 1955. A bust by L. Randolph is displayed in the Toowoomba City Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Cohn, Sister Kenny: The Woman who Challenged the Doctors (Minneapolis, Minn, USA, 1975)
  • Reports on Concepts and Treatment of Poliomyelitis, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1947-48, 2, p 1021
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1, 1938, no 5, p 187
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 1 Dec 1952
  • Elizabeth Kenny papers (held by Queensland Country Women's Assn, Nobby Branch)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Ross Patrick, 'Kenny, Elizabeth (1880–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Elizabeth Kenny, c.1917

Elizabeth Kenny, c.1917

State Library of Queensland, 171668

Life Summary [details]


20 September, 1880
Warialda, New South Wales, Australia


30 November, 1952 (aged 72)
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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Military Service