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Authors: Naomi Rogers

Polio Wars


Polio Wars


Naomi Rogers

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rogers, Naomi, 1958–
Polio wars: Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the golden age of American medicine/Naomi Rogers.
    p. ; cm.
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978–0–19–538059–0 (hardback: alk. paper)—ISBN 978–0–19–970146–9 (updf ebook)—
ISBN 978–0–19–933413–1 (epub ebook)
I.  Title.
[DNLM:    1.  Kenny, Elizabeth, 1886–1952.    2.  Nurses—Australia—Biography.
3.  Poliomyelitis—history—Australia. WZ 100]
614.5′49—dc23              2013011373

9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1
Printed in the United States of America
on acid-free paper

For Nat, Dory,
and JH




List of Archives


A Bush Nurse in America

The Battle Begins

Changing Clinical Care


Polio and Disability Politics

The Polio Wars



Kenny Goes to Washington

Fading Glory

I Knew Sister Kenny



bookshelf is a coin container in an outrageous bright orange that was popular in the 1940s. Under white letters urging me to “Sock Polio” are 3 figures: a toddler in a loin cloth standing awkwardly but steadily; singer Bing Crosby, with a pipe and a jaunty hat; and a white-haired woman in a black dress and pearls, her hands reaching up toward the child with a look of intense pride. “Please Give to the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation,” the container pleads. Crosby was the national chairman of the foundation's 1945 appeal, but who was Sister Kenny? When this can was passed down the aisle at movie theaters, no one in America needed to ask. She was so familiar and iconic a figure that Holly Golightly in
Breakfast at Tiffany's
declared that she would not testify against a friend, “not if they can prove he doped Sister Kenny.”

Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse, came to the United States in 1940 to seek medical approval for her new methods of treating patients paralyzed by polio. (“Sister” was a British designation for senior nurse, not a religious title.) Despite the skepticism and even hostility of American physicians, she succeeded. With the sometimes grudging support of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), a polio philanthropy committed to funding patient care, research, and professional training, her methods were made standard polio care by the mid-1940s. Kenny became one of the most prominent women of her era: the subject of a Hollywood movie
Sister Kenny
(RKO 1946) starring Rosalind Russell; an expert witness at Congressional hearings on the founding of the National Science Foundation; and in 1952, not long before her death, chosen in a Gallup poll as America's most admired woman, outranking former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet by the mid-1950s she was almost forgotten. Crosby's 1953 autobiography
Call Me Lucky
never mentioned her.

Kenny's was a life of passionate outrage. She spent years defending her work, inspiring her patients, and attacking prejudice. She knew how to stir up controversy and how to play medical politics using the media, the public, and politicians. Challenging established medical knowledge on its weak points and inconsistencies, Kenny was a quick study, adopting insights pointed out by her critics and making them integral to her work. Her feisty style mocked the deference nurses were expected to show physicians but she could also make fun of herself as a middle-aged woman. With what was called her Irish humor she thanked one group of doctors who greeted her at an airport carrying roses, telling them it was gratifying to receive flowers from doctors while she was “still here to smell them.”

This book tells the story of Sister Kenny and the Kenny method. Kenny's battles with American medical professionals illuminate the medical politics that lay at the heart of American medicine, even during its Golden Age. After her struggles with government bureaucrats and medical professionals in Australia Kenny was neither shocked nor fazed by the need to pull strings and gain influential allies in order to alter clinical care in the United States. Polio was a high-profile disease, and responsibility for its prevention and treatment rested on diverse authorities: local and state health officials and the U.S. Public Health Service; individual physicians, nurses, and physical therapists; civic and charity groups that ran hospitals and “crippled children's homes,” did surveys, and set up services for families with disabled members; and the NFIP, which supported its activities through an annual national fundraising campaign known as the March of Dimes and numerous regional campaigns organized by its local and state chapters. Kenny's heated battles with the NFIP and organized medicine captured the public imagination. Standing outside the elite scientific community, she sought to gain its respect through clinical and laboratory confirmation of her theories of polio. Simultaneously, however, she resented being held to standards of scientific rigor that she suspected were imposed more strictly on her because she was a woman and a nurse and because she dared to question the expertise of male orthopedic surgeons.

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