Every generation has had its own epidemic to deal with. For one generation it was smallpox; for another it was anthrax; for others it was malaria. Shortly after World War I it was polio. The common thread was that they were considered incurable and many people died from it. Today’s epidemic is HIV and AIDS.
Polio was first described by a British physician, Michael Underwood, in 1789. In 1894 the first major polio epidemic reported in the United States occurred in Vermont and consisted of 132 total cases, including some adults. In 1916, there was a large outbreak of polio in the United States. New York alone reported over 9,000 cases. The accepted treatment was to place the patient in leg braces and quarantine them. In its advanced stage, patients could not breath on their own because their lung muscles no longer worked. They were put into what was called an iron lung. One woman, with great effort, radically changed the treatment for the better.
Elizabeth Kenny was born in Australia in 1886. In the early 1900s, a degree in nursing could not be obtained by going to a college or university. Instead, anyone wanting to become a nurse, contracted with a hospital to learn nursing by on-the-job training. Elizabeth Kenney obtained her nursing license in 1911. At the time most nurses were members of a religious group, so all nurses were given the title of Sister. During World War I she treated military patients in the field, somewhat like a MASH unit.
After the war ended, she practiced nursing in Queensland Hospital. In 1933 Sister Kenney began concentrating her efforts on patients with polio. She devised her own treatment of curing polio. Her method was to remove the braces and wrap the legs in warm towels. Then, several times a day, she would give the legs a massage and flex them at the hip and knee. Her reasoning was that the brain had forgot how to flex the extremities and needed retraining. As you can imagine, the medical community was highly critical of her methods — many doctors called her a lunatic. After all, how could a brain forget how to do ordinary tasks?
In 1933, she opened a center for the treatment of polio. She obtained many patients because they had given up on the traditional treatment and were willing to try anything to get cured. In this clinic Sister Kenny treated and cured dozens of patients with polio. Within weeks of starting her treatment, most could walk alone unaided. By the end of a year her patients had no remaining symptoms.
In 1935, a royal commission was appointed to study Sister Kenny’s treatment and make a ruling. Despite her success, the commission ruled that her treatment was ineffective and that the patients she did it on didn’t really have polio. The true reason Sister Kenny was ostracized by the medical community is because she was not a physician and had not spent years in college to obtain a medical degree. Therefore, how could she determine what was polio and what was not? Also, she was a "mere woman" — their words, not mine. The political climate in Australia and Great Britain had risen to a fever pitch against her and her treatments, so in 1940 she came to the United States.
Upon her arrival, she was treated enthusiastically, even by the medical community. She gave lectures and demonstrations to scores of male physicians. She also taught at the University of Minnesota Medical School starting in 1942. She published two books about the treatment of polio: Infantile Paralysis and Cerebral Diplegia: Methods Used for the Restoration of Function (1937) and The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in the Acute Stage (1941). As a result, many treatment centers utilizing Sister Kenny’s treatment methods, were established around the United States. The success rate was 85% of the patients were fully cured. The other 15% made partial recoveries. In 1950, Sister Kenny went back to Australia and died there in 1952.
Today, with the vaccines produced by Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, polio is almost eradicated.
Sister Kenny, in addition to a treatment of polio, has left a still greater legacy. Prior to Sister Kenny’s treatments for polio, people that had a stroke or sustained brain injuries had no method of treating the disability. Today, we call Sister Kenny’s treatment physical therapy. As a result, millions of people who did not have polio, have gone through physical therapy and recovered from their disability. History Buff
The Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute is now a part of the Allina medical organization in the Twin Cities. I remember when I was in the fifth grade or so every student in Duluth got "polio shots" to attempt to stop this dreadful disease. Then a few months later, we got them again. It turned out that the Salk Polio Vaccine had turned out to be an effective preventative against the disease. The testing was called off and all of us in Duluth, who had received a "placebo vaccine" as a part of the testing program were given the real vaccine with the second injection.
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