In the spring of 1940, a Minneapolis lawyer carried his polio-ravaged 18-year-old son down the stairs of their home at 5210 Girard Av. S. Despite treatment at President Roosevelt’s polio treatment center in Georgia, Henry Haverstock Jr., was in rough shape. Both legs, an arm, his back and stomach were paralyzed. His body was trapped in a stiff corset. Doctors said the steel braces would remain on his legs for the rest of his life.
“There is some woman here from Australia,” Dr. John Pohl told Henry’s parents. “I don’t know if she has anything, but he won’t walk again and it’s worth a try.”
Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a 59-year-old nurse who’d just arrived in the United States after a lifetime in Australia’s outback, began examining Henry. She wasn’t a nun; following military custom, she’d earned the “Sister” title as an Aussie head nurse during the First World War.
Kenny believed Henry’s muscles weren’t dead but in spasm, so the casts, splints and braces were “all wrong.” Her so-called Kenny Method instead called for hot packs and gentle muscle manipulation. Henry returned to the hospital, where she urged him to concentrate as she retrained each of his muscles.
“The doctors and nurses almost fell out the windows when he came walking out of his room,” said one person watching Henry using two short hand crutches Kenny had given him. Two years later he was climbing the stairs at college, according to Victor Cohn’s 1975 book, “Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors.”
“The average among us breathe youthful fires and cool as we age and harden. ... She never gave up,” Cohn wrote of Kenny’s late-in-life rise from bush nurse to polio pioneer and namesake of a 67-year-old rehabilitation institute in Minneapolis.
Cohn, who covered Kenny’s revolutionary polio treatments as a Minneapolis Tribune reporter, asked in his book: “How can we explain this woman who was called both a fraud and a medical genius, a cheap quack and an unhappy martyr, a raging old tiger and a merciful angel?”
The daughter of an Irish immigrant farmer, Kenny rode horses and then motorcycles to visit early patients. She had little time for romance after an early paramour in Australia offered her an ultimatum when she was asked to help a woman in childbirth. In her autobiography, she said a man named Dan asked her to decide between marrying him or her vocation. She picked nursing.
Most experts at the time thought polio killed nerve cells and yanked muscles out of place, requiring immobilizing casts and splints. Kenny insisted the muscles were merely tight so “your splints and casts are illogical; throw them out.”
Her methods largely rebuked in Australia, Kenny’s hot packs approach to polio also fell on deaf ears when she first arrived in the United States 80 years ago. She went to New York and Chicago, where doctors thought her “a screwball.” Cohn wrote that she was told she was wrong “politely, then impolitely, then brutally.”
But when she got to Minnesota, she found open doors and minds at the Mayo Clinic and University of Minnesota.
Kenny was unafraid to call doctors “dodos” to their faces, the Minneapolis Star wrote: “Many medical men saw red, but the stubborn woman with the powerful frame succeeded in throwing off the splints and casts that had bound polio victims.”
Most crippling polio cases struck children. “The time was ripe for the dramatic appearance of an underdog who appealed to parents with the simple message: ‘I can help your children.’ ’’
Emerging at a time when, in Cohn’s words, “women held only a thin beachhead,” Kenny said a surgeon once told her: “Doctors are not going to be taught by a nurse.” Especially one with little formal training.
But Kenny found fame in the United States she could never have imagined back in Australia. For 10 years, pollster George Gallup found her ranked second to only Eleanor Roosevelt as the most admired woman in America. She was voted No. 1 just before her death in 1952.
Kenny drew a crowd of more than 1,000 parents of polio victims on a 1944 trip to Washington. “It’s like watching a miracle,” one policeman said. “You can’t keep them back.” When Hollywood released the film “Sister Kenny” in 1946, some 20,000 people reportedly jammed Times Square in Manhattan for its world premiere and nearly knocked Kenny over.
“She looked like an M-4 tank,” said actress Rosalind Russell, who played Kenny in the movie and became her friend. “But her eyes were the loneliest and loveliest I have ever looked into.”
Kenny spent only a decade in Minnesota before retiring in 1950 and returning to Australia, where she died at 72 in 1952 after a stroke. But she left her mark here like few others before or since.
“That Sister Kenny found a place in Minneapolis to forward her work is and should be a source of pride to the city,” a Star editorial said when she died. “To those who especially helped her here there is the unique satisfaction of having recognized greatness, and of having given it the chance it deserved.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.