Sister Elizabeth Kenny

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Winning Nomination

Because of her work with polio, she saved so many people from an early death and from a lifelong struggle with being crippled.
~Sister Isabella Ferrell, St. Paul, MN


Runner-up Nominations

I nominate her because she took a stand against the effects of polio and also proved that her method worked over doctors'. Her method helped many people walk again.
~Rachael Wittkowske

Sister Kenny was an innovator in polio treatment that worked for many Minnesotans and beyond.
~Frances Getchell

In the same vein as the Doctors Mayo, Sister Kenny, whose name came from service with the Australian forces in World War I, made Minnesota's reputation for medical innovation all the more illustrious with her approach to dealing with polio through hot packs, massage and therapeutic exercises, saving many thousands of polio cases and giving them a sense of dignity.
~Larry Ellis Reed, Winona, MN

Sister Kenny introduced a revolutionary treatment for polio and started rehabilitative medicine.
~Eleanor Kasella, Woodbury, MN

Sister Kenny, worked with polio.
~Bette deFiebre, Minneapolis, MN

Sister Elizabeth Kenney, an Australian nurse, arrived in Minnesota in 1940. She came to the United States to promote her ideas about treating polio using physical therapy and hot packs rather than the traditional method of complete immobilization.

Her techniques were initially scoffed at by the medical profession, but work with a patient in his Minneapolis home brought favorable attention.

In 1942, the Elizabeth Kenny Institute for the treatment of Infantile Paralysis was dedicated in Minneapolis. Kenny would be the first woman other than a first lady to be declared the Most Admired Woman in a Gallup poll and Congress would grant her free access to the United States without a passport, a rare honor..

A prime candidate for the top 150 list increasing attention.
~Steve Trimble, St. Paul, MN


Contents

History

(1880-1952)

The power of one fights an epidemic

Polio, an infectious viral disease that is also called infantile paralysis, reached its peak in the United States in 1952 with 58,000 cases, causing 3,145 deaths and leaving 21,269 people with varying degrees of paralysis. Beginning in 1916, the disease had been at epidemic levels somewhere in the country each summer. Into this culture of fear and suffering stepped Elizabeth Kenny, a self-taught Australian bush nurse. Kenny, who had earned the military rank "Sister" while serving with the Australia Army Nursing Service during World War I, had developed a successful program of massage and exercise that restored polio patients' strength and mobility. But the Australian medical profession did not support her unorthodox treatments.

In 1940, she came to the United States, seeking acceptance for her practices. The American Medical Association spurned her--her term for the cause of polio-related paralysis, "mental alienation," wasn't found in any medical dictionary. Nor was her system of "muscle re-education" a standard procedure. Instead, polio patients were isolated from others, their limbs immobilized with braces or their bodies encased in iron lungs.

Kenny made her way to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors were receptive to her ideas. There were few polio patients for Kenny to treat in Rochester, however, so she went to Minneapolis, a city particularly hard-hit by the disease. There she met three doctors--Miland Knapp, John Pohl, and Wallace Cole--who were desperate to find effective treatments for their patients. Knapp invited her to treat one of his patients, a grocer's son, with hot packs to relieve his pain and physical therapy to restore his mobility. The treatment was successful, Knapp became a convert, and Kenny was given permission to treat patients at Minneapolis General Hospital. Fifty-five percent of her patients returned to normal function; the rest regained varying degrees of mobility.

Sister Kenny was a force to be reckoned with--a statuesque woman with snow-white hair who did not suffer fools gladly. Her zeal yielded results--she convinced a group of Minneapolis businessmen to back her efforts, each donating $412 toward what eventually became the Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. Her ideas are still in use around the world and in Minneapolis at the Sister Kenny Institute.

Dr. Jennine Speier, a rehabilitation physician at Allina Hospitals, occasionally treats some of Kenny's former patients. "Every patient I talk to who was treated as a child says to me, 'I was her favorite.'"

Resource Links

Sister Elizabeth Kenny : Library : MNHS.ORG

MPR: Fighting polio with "gentle hands"

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