Snapshot Sister Elizabeth Kenny Biography

Photograph of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, wearing a dress, hat and coat, and waving to people. Photograph taken in 1950.
Elizabeth Kenny, 1950

In a survey of Americans conducted in 1951, Sister Elizabeth Kenny was voted the most admired woman in the world. Hollywood had already brought her story to life.

Elizabeth became known in the 1930s and 1940s for her work treating polio patients. It was still a time before the vaccine and epidemic polio outbreaks occurred. The disease primarily affected children and often resulted in paralysis, with some succumbing to the condition due to respiratory failure.

For treating patients, Elizabeth took a novel approach, which would become known as the “Kenny method” or “Sister Kenny’s method.” It involved using hot compresses and passive exercise instead of the traditional immobilization treatment using splints. Her techniques focused on muscle rehabilitation, arguing that the muscles affected by polio were not paralyzed but in a state of spasm. It was different and would help many.

Elizabeth, born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia, in 1880, began her medical career in nursing. She was self-trained with teaching and mentoring from local caregivers. In her early work years, she served the communities of rural New South Wales and Queensland. People appreciated her strong commitment to patients, as she often traveled long distances to provide care.

This work paused during World War I when she enlisted in the Australian Army Nursing Service in 1915. She served in challenging conditions in Australia, England, and France and was promoted to the rank of Sister, a title equivalent to a first lieutenant in the Nurse Corps. She would use this title for the rest of her life.

While it’s difficult to pinpoint when Elizabeth developed her approach to treating patients with polio, she wrote,

“Since the year 1933, I have been endeavoring to the medical world the fact that spasm is a damaging and ever-present symptom of the disease, infantile paralysis.”

For Elizabeth, developing this methodology came to be through intuition and many experiences treating patients as a nurse. Initially, her methods received significant pushback. But Elizabeth, who one journal described as a “human tornado,” believed in her approach and advocated for it. And with time, medical centers in Australia and then the U.S. also adopted it in their treatments.

Although Elizabeth is primarily known for her work treating polio patients, her contributions extend far beyond. Her emphasis on the active, physical rehabilitation of muscles represented a shift in treatment paradigms and became foundational in medical areas, particularly in physical therapy.

Towards the end of her life, Elizabeth visited a notable virologist. About meeting her, he wrote,

“She had treated more cases than anyone else in the world – she gave the precise number, 7,828 – and no one else was in the position to speak with her authority. She is now almost forgotten by the world. But there was an air of greatness about her and I shall never forget that meeting.”

Elizabeth continued her advocacy and work until retiring in 1951. She passed away on November 30, 1952 in Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia. Her approach, however, to patient care—emphasizing empathy, attentiveness, and the body’s ability to heal—has left a lasting imprint on the world of rehabilitative medicine.

Notes & Sources

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  • Kenny, Sister Elizabeth. The Treatment of Infantile Paralysis in the Acute Stage. United States, Kessinger Publishing, 2009.