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.
There were four children in the family, but it was the little girl, my special pet, who was ill. She lay upon a cot in the most alarming attitude. One knee was drawn up toward the face and the foot was pointed downward. The little heel was twisted and turned outward, or abducted, as we say. One arm lay with flexed elbow across the chest. Any attempt to straighten a member caused the child extreme pain. The little golden-haired girl who had gladdened my former stay in this humble home was indeed very sick, and with an ailment that was unknown to me.
For the moment I felt beaten, since I did not know what to do until I could get the necessary medical advice. This must come by telegram. The nearest telegraph office was several miles away. There was nothing for it but to ride out, send my message, and await the answer. The waiting seemed years instead of hours, and during that interval a very agitated father of seven children came to me with the appalling announcement that his ten-year-old son and his four-year-old daughter had been taken by what he called the “cow disease,” and neither of them could stand or walk.
“They went lame yesterday, just like the cattle have been doing for the past two or three weeks,” he explained, “and today they can’t move.”
The distance between the two homes was four miles. In my anxious suspense, the reply to my telegram was anything but heartening. It read,
Infantile paralysis. No known treatment. Do the best you can with the symptoms presenting themselves.”
Fortunately, perhaps, I was completely ignorant of the orthodox theory of the disease. It had not been encountered by any of the members of the medical profession with whom I had been associated. In those remote days it had not been prevalent, and if it occurred at all it must have been left unobserved by the county practitioner. I felt as if I had been confronted by a blank wall, but panic plays no part in the training of a nurse.
The obvious agony of the little golden-haired patient called for immediate action of some sort. The cruel shortening of the muscles affected, the wild fear expressed in the once laughing blue eyes, the tenseness and the terror of contact even with the loving arms of the almost distracted mother, were sufficient to wring the heart of anyone who witnessed them. My family upbringing and my feeling of utter helplessness prompted me to close my eyes and pray for divine guidance.
I set to work at once to relive the mounting distress that was evident in the whole being of the disease-wracked child. I saw the little girl’s efforts to protect the painfully contracting muscles from stretch that would increase the pain, and from my knowledge of muscle structure I was aware that if this condition could not be overcome, deformity and perhaps other most undesirable complications would result. I knew the relaxing power of heat. I filled a frying pan with salt, placed it over the fire, then poured it into a bag and applied it to the leg that was giving the most pain. After an anxious wait, I saw that no relief followed the application. I then prepared a linseed meal poultice, but the weight of this seemed only to increase the pain.
At last I tore a blanket made from soft Australian wool into suitable strips and wrung them out of boiling water. These I wrapped gently about the poor, tortured muscles. The whimpering of the child ceased almost immediately, and after a few more applications her eyes closed slowly and she fell asleep.
O sleep, O gentle sleep, I thought gratefully, Nature’s soft nurse!
After a short while, however, the little slumberer awoke fretfully and cried out, “I want them rags that wells my legs!”
And so the little girl of the Australian bushland unknowingly spoke her approval of a treatment that was one day to become the subject of much heated debate among the learned members of the medical world.”
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
The above is an edited extract from And They Shall Walk: The Life Story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny by Elizabeth Kenny in collaboration with Martha Ostenso (London: Robert Hale Ltd, 1951), pp 22-25.
Also on Corpus: Polio Survivors in 21st century New Zealand: we’re still here by Gordon Jackman, Polio and me by Marlayna Zucchiatti, and The inert body live on the page: June Opie’s Over My Dead Body by Lucy Hunter.