Sister Elizabeth Kenny demonstrating her therapy for polio patients to another nursing sister in a hospital in Queensland in 1939.
Sister Elizabeth Kenny demonstrating her therapy for polio patients to another nursing sister in a hospital in Queensland in 1939. SLQ

LIFE AS I KNOW IT: Polio pioneer was shunned by the establishment

INSPIRING stories of women are in overdrive at the moment thanks to the catalyst hashtag campaigns that continue to gain traction daily. Unlike other attempts to raise the status of women in society, this time the momentum isn't going to flounder until it actually happens.

International Women's Day could just as likely be titled "year" or "decade" depending on how slowly this goes, as everyone from the media to the corporate world and sporting organisations, politicians and new age dudes scramble to play catch-up in the smash-the-patriarchy game.

While females are the main protagonists in this mission, other humans neglected by society due to their race, sexuality, religion, physical appearance, abilities etc, are also riding this momentum as we push forward in the fight for diversity and recognition across all facets of society.

But back to stories of inspiring women. At this rate it would be easy to name one a day for the rest of my life but you have to start somewhere so thought I'd go with a woman who is regarded as one of our "hidden heroes" - a title that plenty of women who do really amazing stuff would be pretty familiar with, much like the term quiet achiever or, more aptly, the invisible or taken-for-granted achiever (hello to all the mothers of future adult members of society out there).

Now you would think that developing a revolutionary treatment for polio that helped thousands of children around the world would warrant you something better than hidden hero status in your own country.

If she were a he it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine there would be a few bronze tributes and portraits of him hanging in national institutions of note.

But not in Sister Elizabeth Kenny's case. She's not a household name but what she did was transform thousands of households during the early 20th century when polio was rampant.

She had no formal training but pioneered a technique that went against the medical establishment which, you guessed it, was a pretty blokey affair back in the 1930s and '40s.

Despite no formal qualifications beyond early mentoring by a family doctor after a broken arm piqued her interest in anatomy, she began her career as a bush nurse followed by a volunteer role during World War I, her four years' service earning her the title of Sister, something she cherished her entire life.

It during the early days bush nursing she encountered her first polio victim. Unsure exactly what it was she used instinct rather than what was considered the medical protocols of the time, not so much an act of defiance but not knowing exactly what she was dealing with.

She used hot baths and compresses to relieve pain instead of drug injections, and performed gentle movements with the patient's limbs, stretching and strengthening them rather than the traditional practice of immobilisation by binding and using braces and callipers. The results spoke for themselves and despite harsh criticism as she went on to challenge, rather loudly, the inconsistencies in the medically endorsed techniques. Doctors loathed her but her success meant she was begrudgingly allowed to set up clinics around Australia by the reluctant health department.

She also took a trip to England to set up a facility and published books on the subject but her methods were never fully accepted.

Her gender, her lack of qualifications, her persistent challenging of the establishment, all grated, and when they tried to discredit or ridicule her she fought back harder. After all she was right and everyone else was wrong as well as being astonishingly stupid it was said.

Perhaps to rid themselves of the defiant loud mouth and the humiliating success she was enjoying Sr Kenny was sent to United States in 1940 to teach her much maligned method.

After facing a difficult start doctors in Minneapolis finally gave her the opportunity she longed for and the city became her base for the next 11 years of her life. She soon became an American hero, setting up the Sister Kenny Institute and championing what became the Kenny Method. She received many honours from invitations to lecture internationally to honorary degrees to pop culture's finest accolade, having a Hollywood film made after her.

Her autobiography, And They Shall Walk, was published in New York in 1943.

Despite this success, she remained the centre of bitter controversy, partly because of her intolerance of any opposition. She returned to Australia several times during this period with little acclaim, on one occasion even greeted with royal commission, another attempt to damn her methods.

Between 1934 and her death on November 30, 1952, Sister Kenny and her flock treated millions of polio victims across the world.

Such was the profound effect she had on her patients thousand of letters remain in US archives known as the Kenny Papers and include innumerable letters from former patients who expressed their joy and gratitude at having been treated and cared by her, how much happier their lives had played out because of her. This wasn't just because she cured them but because she made them happy while they and their parents were in the midst of a life of hell. Children at this particular place and time were the luckiest in the world.

One of those was a young Alan Alda, the M*A*S*H actor who once slammed doctors in Australia during a talk show, calling them out on their arrogance and egos after having his body transformed by Sister Kenny's method.

Thankfully Sr Kenny had no time for the establishment that condemned her but she always had time for her "kids".

A robust woman, with white hair often covered with a big hat, Sr Kenny was an imposing figure. She could speak gently to a young patient one minute and harshly criticise a doctor the next.

During the final years of her life before she retired in 1951, she made journeys throughout America, Europe and Australia in final effort for her methods to be accepted while we waited for a vaccine. She developed Parkinson's Disease and died in Toowoomba where her resting place is marked with a simple headstone.

Apparently Sr Kenny didn't like the word miracle worker. The science, however questionable, was sound and the therapy worked. The kids got better. And that warrants more than being known as a hidden hero, plain and simple.

"It's better to be a lion for a day than a sheep all your life." Sister Elizabeth Kenny.

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