Thought of the Day 9.20.12 Elizabeth Kenny


“He who angers you conquers you.”

–Elizabeth Kenny

“Sister” Kenny [Image courtesy: Australian War Memorial; AWM.Gov.au]

Elizabeth Kenny was born on this day in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia in 1880. Today is the 132nd anniversary of her birth.

Because her father was an itinerant farmer the family moved often when Elizabeth was growing up. Her education was limited to home-schooling and a variety of small town primary schools. When she was 17 she fell off her horse and broke her wrist. Her father, Michael, took her to the town of  Toowoomba to see Dr. Aeneas McDonnell. Kenny remained in Toowoomba to recover from the injury and grew fascinated with Dr. McDonnell’s medical books, especially those on anatomy, and his model skeleton. It started Kenny on her life long journey in medicine. She made her own model skeleton to study how muscles and bone worked together in the human body.

Elizabeth Kenny as a young woman. [Image courtesy: Minnesota Public Radio.org]

At 18 she became an unaccredited,  unpaid bush nurse. She later (probably) volunteered at the maternity hospital at Guyra in New South Wales.

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. [Elizabeth Kenny, by Ross Patrick, Australian Dictionary of Biography]

Kenny opened St. Canice’s Cottage Hospital in Clifton. She kept in contact with Dr. McDonnell and would often telegraph him when a case stymied her.

In 1911 one such case presented itself. She contacted McDonnell about a new case that stymied her.. a young girl who was crippled, but not from a fall or external trauma. McDonnell replied that it was probably “It sounds like Infantile Paralysis.  There’s no known treatment, so do the best you can.” [Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Australians Documentary Series. 1998. from Teachspace.org] Kenny used a common sense approach. She applied hot compresses to the little girl’s spasming muscles. Hot, heavy woolen blankets were applied that help loosen the muscles and relieve the pain. Then she stretched the little girls legs and strengthened the muscles. It worked. The pain abated, the girl (allegedly) asked “Please, I want them rags that well my leg.”

Of the twenty children in the district, the six that Kenny treated survived without complications. [Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Australians Documentary Series. 1998. from Teachspace.org]

With the outbreak of World War I Kenny, with a letter of recommendation from Dr. McDonnell, joined the Australian Medical Corps. She worked on hospital ships bringing the wounded home from Europe. She was received a shrapnel wound to the leg while at the front.

She patented her invention of a stretcher that immobilized shock patients during transport, the Sylvia Stretcher, and used the royalties  open a clinic for polio patients in Townsville, Queensland. Here she treated long-term polio and cerebral palsy patients, tossing aside the braces and concentrating on hot baths, passive movements and foments.

Sister Kenny works with a young patient as other doctors, nurses and physiotherapist observe. [Image courtesy: Sister Elizabeth Kenny: Medical Pioneer]

Her “homespun” methods for polio treatment, though effective, were controversial as the  accepted practice was to splint the affected limbs to keep them rigid. That way the stronger muscles wouldn’t pull on the weaker/paralyzed muscles and create deformities. Kenny thought that splinting the limbs would actually produce deformities and increase paralysis. She alternately dismissed, ridiculed or vilified by the medical establishment. Kenny soldiered on, buoyed by the support of parents who witnessed first hand the results her methods were having on their children. Kenny opened clinics in Brisbane and through out Queensland.

The controversy over her methods followed her to England  and the US. Kenny worked in the Minneapolis General Hospital where…

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. [Elizabeth Kenny, by Ross Patrick, Australian Dictionary of Biography]

Kenny in 1950. {Image courtesy: Wikipedia]

She developed Parkinson’s disease and retired to Toowoomba in 1951. Kenny died there of cerebrovascular disease on 30 November 1952.

Sister Kenny’s pioneering principles of muscle rehabilitation became the foundation of physical therapy. Today, Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Services is one of the premier rehabilitation centers in the country, known for its progressive and innovative vision. [Nurses for nurse everywhere.info]

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About ritalovestowrite

Freelance writer, graphic designer, musician, foodie and Jane Austen enthusiast in Northern Baltimore County, Maryland. As a writer I enjoy both fiction and non fiction (food, travel and local interest stories.) As an advocate for the ARTS, one of my biggest passions is helping young people find a voice in all the performing arts. To that end it has been my honor to give one-on-one lessons to elementary, middle and high school students in graphic design and music. And as JANE-O I currently serve as the regional coordinator for JASNA Maryland and am working on a Regency/Federal cooking project. View all posts by ritalovestowrite

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