Australian nurse Sister Elizabeth Kenny (1880-1952) is famous for inventing and teaching ‘the Kenny Method’ for polio treatment. Her method advocated the application of hot packs during the acute phase of the illness, followed in the convalescent phase by passive movements and active muscle rehabilitation. The Kenny Method contradicted orthodox medical thinking of the time, which was to splint and immobilise the patient, sometimes for many months. Kenny’s approach was used with reported success in Australian clinics during the 1930s, and despite ongoing controversy and opposition from some medical quarters, was eventually adopted in the USA from 1940.
In her autobiography, And They Shall Walk, Sister Kenny tells the story of her first encounter with polio, and how she stumbled on the idea of using moist heat for relief of pain and spasm. Aged 23, and working as a ‘bush nurse’, she was called to a remote outback cottage, where six months previously she had helped with a birth. According to Kenny’s account, this is what happened:
“During my brief stay at the cottage six months before I had grown to love the little two-year-old sister of the new baby boy, and as I rode into the yard I expected to see her come running out to meet me. But all was quiet. The setting sun shed its soft light on the autumn flowers that surrounded even the least pretentious of Australian homes – great masses of bronze and white and pink chrysanthemums and dahlias. But the silence disturbed me. The shy youngsters usually swarm out to greet the bush nurse, and I was full of fears when the frantic mother, only a year older than I, opened the door to me.