Tuesday, January 23, 2024


By Mary Davis


Elizabeth Kenny 1950

I read about Elizabeth Kenny a couple of decades ago when I was doing polio research for a novel. I was impressed with her approach to treating infantile paralysis (a.k.a. poliomyelitis or polio).


First, let’s look at the disease in the years before Kenny’s treatment.

Polio has been around for thousands of years, but it had little to no effect on populations until the middle of the 1800s. Before this time, outbreaks were so limited that they either weren’t recognized or weren’t recorded. Numerous people contracted polio unawares with flu-like fever and aches, and—BAM—their immune systems created antibodies. Many didn’t even have any symptoms. Some progressed to temporary or permanent paralysis. While others had respiratory failure, which was why Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw developed the iron lung in 1929, saving many lives.

Iron Lung

The earliest notable outbreaks occurred in Europe in the mid-1800s besides one in Louisiana. In 1894, the first recognized US epidemic was in Vermont. With increasing frequency and higher numbers of people infected, the polio epidemics became wider spread and growing numbers of people died. What changed to cause polio to go from an occasional, disregarded illness through the millennia to epidemics suddenly sweeping around the world?




Surprisingly, the increase of more sanitary conditions created a ripe environment for polio to spread. Yes, you heard that right. Sanitary conditions made people more susceptible to polio. Of course, no one knew that at the time. In trying to clean things up to get rid of other killer diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dysentery, polio was able to bloom and spread. How could this be?


If a mother had been exposed to and fought off polio, she developed antibodies that temporarily protected her baby in the womb as well as with the first breast milk. Before sanitation became a thing, a newborn would have been exposed to polio in its unclean environment while being protected by its mother’s antibodies. When exposed, the baby could fight off the disease and develop its own antibodies with minimal to no symptoms. No one would have likely noticed that the baby was even ill. Most people were “immunized” very early in life. Only those with poor or weak immune systems reached the second (often paralyzing) phase of the disease.


Therefore, if a baby, in this new, cleaner environment, isn’t exposed to polio while protected by its mother’s antibodies, then it could contract it later on when it doesn’t have the benefit of its mother’s antibodies. And if that child grows up without ever being exposed and has a baby, that next generation wouldn’t have a mother’s antibodies to protect them and to help fight the disease. This was why so many babies were stricken and paralyzed.


Enter Elizabeth Kenny, born in Warialda, New South Wales, Australia on September 20, 1880, during a time when polio was on the rise. At age seventeen, she broke her wrist and convalesced in Toowoomba under the supervision of Dr. Aeneas McDonnell. While there, she became interested in how muscles worked and studied McDonnell’s anatomy books and model skeleton. McDonnell became her lifelong mentor. She later trained at a private hospital in Sydney, graduating in 1911.

Kenny 1915

She started her own nursing practice, traveled by foot, horseback, or buggy to the bush country, and charged no money. One of her patients, in 1911, had contracted polio, the first case Kenny had come across. She wrote to McDonnell, asking advice on how to treat the disease. Not much could be done at the time, so he advised to treat the symptoms. Which for the wider medical community meant complete immobilization with casts and heavy splints. Being a bit outside this community and unaware of the standard treatment, she interpreted the advice the best she could by putting warm, wet compresses on the limbs and passive movement of the muscles. The girl recovered.


Soon, Kenny served as a nurse for the Australian forces during WWI on a hospital ship. After her time in service, she went back to treating polio and cerebral palsy. In the 1920s and 1930s, she built several polio treatment clinics around the world.

Brisbane Clinic 1938

Rockhampton Hospital 1939

Kenny’s unorthodox method didn’t sit well with people who ascribed to the generally accepted medical care for polio—immobilization. The belief at the time was that this disease was in the nervous or spinal system. Kenny believed the key to polio lay in the muscular framework. Her regiment of hot, wet compresses for pain and passive movement of the limbs to reduce spasms reflected that.


A royal commission in 1935 studied her methods. Their report was unfavorable. At nearly the same time, a London inquiry came to a similar conclusion.

Kenny in her garden with her secretary

However, she visited the US in 1940 and was received with enthusiasm. A medical committee of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis deemed her basic methods and practices in alignment with them in 1941. In 1942, she became a guest lecturer at the Minnesota Medical School, and an Elizabeth Kenny Clinic was opened in Minneapolis. After that, clinics with her name popped up across the US. She was showered with praise as well as degrees. Even though more than 85% of her over 7,000 patients at the Minneapolis clinic recovered compared to only 13% with the conventional accepted method, medical opinion remained divided. However, all of the people Kenny helped have to be grateful for her treatment.

Kenny in 1952, shortly before her death

Fortunately today, we don’t have to go backward to unsanitary conditions to protect ourselves from polio. We have a vaccine that can wipe out this devastating disease. However, a viable vaccine didn’t come in Kenny’s lifetime. She passed away in Toowoomba, Queensland on November 30, 1952.


Do you have a polio vaccine scar? Or did you get a sugar cube to help the medicine go down?



Historical Romance Series

By Mary Davis

THE WIDOW’S PLIGHT (Book1) – Will a secret clouding a single mother’s past cost Lily her loved ones?

THE DAUGHTER’S PREDICAMENT (Book2) *SELAH & WRMA Finalist* – As Isabelle’s romance prospects turn in her favor, a family scandal derails her dreams.

THE DAMSEL’S INTENT (Book3) *SELAH Winner* – Nicole heads down the mountain to fetch herself a husband. Can she learn to be enough of a lady to snag the handsome rancher?

THE DÉBUTANTE’S SECRET (Book4) – Complications arise when a fancy French lady steps off the train and into Deputy Montana’s arms.



MARY DAVIS, bestselling, award-winning novelist, has over thirty titles in both historical and contemporary themes. Her latest release is THE LADY’S MISSION. Her other novels include THE DÉBUTANTE'S SECRET (Quilting Circle Book 4) THE DAMSEL’S INTENT (The Quilting Circle Book 3) is a SELAH Award Winner. Some of her other recent titles include; THE WIDOW'S PLIGHT, THE DAUGHTER'S PREDICAMENT, “Zola’s Cross-Country Adventure” in The MISSAdventure Brides Collection, Prodigal Daughters Amish series, "Holly and Ivy" in A Bouquet of Brides Collection, and "Bygones" in Thimbles and Threads. She is a member of ACFW and active in critique groups.

Mary lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband of thirty-seven years and one cat. She has three adult children and three incredibly adorable grandchildren. Find her online at:
Books2Read Newsletter Blog FB FB Readers Group Amazon GoodReads BookBub








  1. Thank you for posting today and Happy New Year to you and your family. This was very interesting! I never thought about being "too" clean as a pathway for illness. I think I have both a scar and had sugar cubes but maybe I only saw the cubes.

    1. I just looked up info about the vaccine and it says it is a three-dose regimen. So it is likely that I had both versions. Another factoid learned!

  2. Great post! I didn't know polio spread after sanitation increased. Very interesting! I did the sugar cube vaccination method.

  3. I had polio at 4 months. Even had to be vaccinated to go to school. So I had it and still had to be vaccinated. The effects were an atrophied right leg from hip to my toes, drop foot and lung problems, I now sleep under a C-pap machine.