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Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Sister Kenny Institute revolutionized treatment of polio patients

iron lung patient
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Iron lung patient and staff, Sister Kenny Institute, Minneapolis. c.1942.

The Sister Kenny Institute was founded in 1942 as a rehabilitation-based treatment center for polio patients. In the 1940s and 1950s, polio was one of the most widespread and dreaded childhood diseases in the world. Affected children and young adults traveled from across the globe to be treated by the Institute's founder, Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny. The Institute also offered courses for nurses and physical therapists who wanted to be trained in the Kenny Method. After the polio vaccine was developed in 1955, the Sister Kenny Institute's mission expanded to include rehabilitation medicine in general.

Elizabeth Kenny was an unlikely figure to revolutionize the history of polio treatment. She was born in rural Australia in 1880. Although she had no formal training in nursing, she was able to talk her way into the Australian military and serve as a nurse. There she earned the title "Sister," an Australian military title given to the chief nurse.

Paralytic poliomyelitis, or polio, is a virus that can cause nerve damage in the spinal cord or brain stem. This damage usually caused signs of paralysis in a person's legs. It could also affect the arms, trunk, or diaphragm. Before Sister Kenny, doctors put splints and braces on affected limbs and occasionally operated. They used a respirator called an iron lung to help patients breathe.

When Sister Kenny saw her first case of polio in 1911, she thought the patients' limbs were stiff, not permanently paralyzed. She also was unaware of the accepted medical treatment. Instead of using braces to keep limbs rigid, she thought it was best to use hot packs and encourage gentle movement. Her method re-taught patients how to use limbs that had been only temporarily paralyzed by the virus. This revolutionized the treatment of polio.

Kenny faced a lot of resistance when she came to the United States in 1940. Doctors in New York and Chicago dismissed her. They did so because her theories challenged the conventional wisdom, and because she was a woman without much formal medical training. But in Minnesota, Kenny found an interested audience.

Kenny went to the Mayo Clinic and then the University of Minnesota. After demonstrating her treatments, she began caring for acute polio patients at Minneapolis General Hospital. Many parents wanted Sister Kenny to care for their children. Her treatment was more effective and less painful. Since she could not meet the demand, she began training technicians to help her.

Soon Sister Kenny and her technicians needed a larger facility. The Minneapolis Board of Public Welfare suggested the Lymanhurst building, which was being used as a school and hospital for children with rheumatic fever. The city relocated the patients and students who were there and remodeled it for Kenny's use.

The Elizabeth Kenny Clinic opened on December 17, 1942. The treatment methods that Sister Kenny used for polio - like heat packs and careful exercise - became the basis of a new field of medicine called rehabilitation medicine.

The hospital had a capacity of 100 beds, but it often served many more patients than that. During big epidemics, patients were sent to other hospitals in the city. In 1946, Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey pleaded with the federal government to let them temporarily use the barracks at Fort Snelling for polio patients.

Sister Kenny was very famous, and Hollywood made a movie about her. But the patients at the Kenny Institute had mixed feelings about their time at her clinic. They were young, sick, and scared. The Institute did not let them see their parents very often, and their rooms were overcrowded.

In 1943, the clinic became the Sister Kenny Institute and was managed and funded by the newly formed Sister Kenny Foundation. By the 1960s, the foundation and the institute were in trouble. The foundation's executive director, Marvin Kline, was indicted for mismanaging foundation funds.

After that crisis, Dr. Frank H. Krusen became the new director of the Sister Kenny Foundation. He restored community support, and his medical guidance kept the institute on the forefront of rehabilitation medicine even after the 1955 polio vaccine dramatically reduced the number of polio cases in the U.S.

In 1975, the Sister Kenny Institute merged with the Abbott-Northwestern Hospital Corporation, because it was becoming hard for small, freestanding hospitals to stay afloat. As of 2012, the Kenny Institute remains a prominent center for rehabilitation treatment and research in Minnesota.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

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Comments (1)

Returning to Sister Kenny after 50 years

My mom had polio in 1953 and she relied on Sister Kenny's rehabilitation techniques to recover. Some 50 years later, my mom was back at Sister Kenny recovering from a stroke but also, a return of polio-like symptoms - muscle weakness, breathing and swallowing difficulties, and more. It is not unusual for polio sufferers to re-experience problems decades after symptoms became dormant; the care required of these older, ravaged bodies is distinct. Exercise, for instance, must be done with caution because the remaining, compensating muscles quickly weaken with exertion. Just walking across the living room can feel like a marathon.

I encourage families to consider that a family member who experienced polio decades ago may benefit from special care related to post-polio symptoms that go well beyond the natural aging process. Our family is grateful for the particular knowledge of the Institute and my mom feels great comfort knowing Sister Kenny is there for her once again.