Via The New York Times: A Nurse Gains Fame in the Days of Polio. Excerpt:
In the years after World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt routinely won polls as America’s most admired woman. But in a 1952 Gallup poll, she was beaten by an Australian nurse, Elizabeth Kenny, popularly known as Sister Kenny.
Today, Elizabeth Kenny is largely forgotten. But thanks to a new biography by the Yale University historian of medicine Naomi Rogers, Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine, readers can learn why she gained such fame. And while Ms. Kenny’s work was mostly in polio, which has now nearly been eradicated, her emphasis on the care of individual patients and close bedside observation could not be more relevant in an era dominated by randomized controlled trials.
Ms. Kenny was an unlikely celebrity. Born in Australia in 1880, she became a “bush nurse,” serving a largely rural population. It was World War I that opened up her vistas; she worked as a British army nurse on troop ships and earned the honorific title “Sister,” the equivalent of a lieutenant, for her service. Contrary to popular belief, Ms. Kenny was not a nun.
Meanwhile, in Australia and around the world, rates of polio were on the rise in the 1920s and ’30s. Although only one in 200 cases damaged nerves in the spinal cord, polio, a viral disease, was dreaded. Most of its victims were children and young adults. Those severely affected first developed fever and body aches, which progressed to varying degrees of paralysis in hours to days. The most advanced cases affected the brain stem and respiratory muscles; these patients required iron lungs, an early version of the respirator, to breathe. Five to 10 percent of paralyzed polio patients died; up to half had persistent partial paralysis.
Ms. Kenny had encountered patients with polio before the war and made a crucial observation: heated wool cloths and muscle exercises seemed to relieve patients’ pain and contractures, or muscle shortening, which she thought resulted from muscle spasm in addition to nerve damage.
I had some of the Sister Kenny treatment when I was in hospital in Los Angeles in November 1948. I remember seeing vats full of wool blankets steaming away near our ward, and feeling them draped over me as I lay in my crib. (At 7, I considered the crib a greater indignity than the blankets.) Did they do any good? I have no idea. When I was released after two weeks, I had to learn how to walk again, and for the following year I had regular weekly massages, which I assume were also inspired by Sister Kenny.