By Published On: 29th March, 2024Categories: Heritage0 Comments on Heritage 2554 words2.8 min read

Now one for the ladies, though still connected to the First world war, but surrounded by controversy.  Throughout history Infantile Paralysis (or poliomyelitis) has been a particularly painful and crippling disease, but God raised up a young Australian lass, ignorant of ‘traditional’ treatments, who found a successful method for treating those suffering from this disease.  Elizabeth Kenny was born in northern New South Wales in 1886 to an Irish immigrant, the family moved early in her life to southern Queensland, and while still quite young she decided to become a missionary in India. Though this did not eventuate, her need to serve the stricken did, and she became a bush nurse.  Even before the start of the first world war, she had devised a method of treatment that not only eased the pain and crippling effects of polio, but had opened her own cottage hospital in Clifton, on the Darling Downs Queensland.  As is common though, the ‘establishment’ would not recognise her, or her treatments, as she was ‘unqualified’.

At the start of the war in 1914 she went to England and enlisted in the Nursing Corps, though her Bush Nursing qualifications were unrecognised.  In 1915 she was wounded in France and it was decided that she would be attached to the sea transport section, and in October 1915 she was the first nurse to return to Australia from battle-front duty.  She spent the rest of the war on ships transporting the wounded back to Australia, in all making 12 round trips between Europe and Australia.  After the war she continued serving the sick and wounded as a relieving Matron in a large military hospital, but her wartime duties had taken their toll on her health, and she returned to her home to recover.

But rest was short-lived as the Influenza epidemic of 1918 soon had her out of bed nursing the sick.  Once again her own health suffered and she went to Europe for treatment.  When recovered she returned to Australia and invented a new type of stretcher that allowed a patient to be treated for shock while travelling in an ambulance.  She also continued her ‘unauthorised’ treatment of polio, helping many stricken by the disease in and around Townsville.  It wasn’t until 1934 that the Queensland Government paid her to open a clinic and training school in Brisbane.  People came from Europe and America for successful treatment, yet, by and large, the official medical view was that she was a quack.

However, in 1940 she went to the United States where she treated polio patients and lectured at several major US hospitals, including the famed Mayo Clinic in New York.  By the time she returned in late 1940 to Australia, almost 80% of polio sufferers in Australia were being successfully treated with her method.  In December 1941 the United States National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis announced that the Sister Elizabeth Kenny method was the correct treatment – her battle with ‘officialdom’ was over.  She was given many honours, including being the guest of honour with President Roosevelt, himself a polio victim.

After a lifetime of unrelenting hard work, Sister Elizabeth Kenny died in Australia in 1952 aged 66, yet her name lives on in clinics and training centres throughout the world where the fight against polio still goes on, though today the dreaded disease is almost non-existent due to the widespread use of vaccines.

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