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Sister Kenny Institute revolutionized treatment of polio patients

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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Renee McGivern on 11/27/2012 - 12:06 pm.

    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.

  2. Submitted by sandra anderson on 05/02/2015 - 11:43 pm.

    post polio syndrom

    I had polio at age 4 1/2. end result affected right leg. muscle and nerve damage…series of surgeries to stabilize foot. also, tendon deteriorated, therefore, surgeries to move and replace damaged tendons. polio never stopped me from doing anything as a kid. I did everything like all children. noticed weakness starting in arms, legs and back at age 46. didn’t realize what it was. finding out more all of the time. at 50 years old had left hip replaced twice. health starting doing down hill. retired that summer. getting more weakness all the time. began using cane, then walker now wheelchair. just spent over a month in rehab hospital getting well from many conditions, including post polio. losts of therapy! everyday! walking with walker now over 170 feet! strong enough to shower alone, and do many thisg I did years ago./ still live alone, but have a caregiver, hanyman, and friend to help if I need it. family is verysupportive also.

    I am now 67. learning more about post polio syndrome all the time. I belong to post polio of Washington.

    I would be happy to talk with anyone interested in this sugject. thank you for sharing and keeping us informed.

    when these hot wraps came to my attention yesterday, I remember as a 4 year old the smell of mustard. my older 70 year old friend remembers smelling wet wool….interesting…
    I would love to get email.

    thank you,,sandi Anderson

    • Submitted by Julie Amen on 11/14/2019 - 12:28 pm.

      Hello! I am an 8th grader at Avail Academy, participating in the National History Day Competition. I am researching Sister Kenny and her treatments for poliomyelitis. I would love to ask you some questions!
      1. What was it like to have polio?
      2. What barrios did polio place in your life?
      3. What different treatments did you receive as a patient?
      4. Where were you treated? Was it in Minnesota, and did you have any connection to the Sister Kenny Institute?
      I would appreciate any time you could give me, thank you so much!

      • Submitted by mary briccetti on 01/24/2020 - 11:14 am.

        Hi Julie, I just read your post. What an interesting paper you are writing, I have some answers to your questions, if it’s not too late. It wasn’t fun to have polio, I was in the hospital for several weeks with Sister Kenney treatments. I was 8 yrs old. I’m now 75 years old. I was lucky and didn’t have polio very bad, and had a complete recovery.

        I remember hating the Sister Kenney treatments and dreading the sounds of the nurses coming. They used large pieces of very hot army blankets wrapped around your arms and legs with a rubber sheet to protect your skin, then pinned them on. You had to lay quietly until they cooled off. I can’t remember how many times a day they did this, but several. Maybe 3 or 4.

        I lived in Sioux City, Iowa (so, pretty close to Minnesota).

        Polio was a terrible disease and many people died. I can still remember the sounds of the iron lungs that were lined up in the hospital’s hallways.

        When I was in the hospital there was no air conditioning, and we were all in quarantine. No visitors, not even parents. My dad put a ladder up to the window so he could see me before they caught him and made him get down. I’ve seen pictures of this, too. It was pretty hard on the parents AND patients. I’m thankful for the Drs and researchers that found a vaccine so other people didn’t have to die or become paralyzed.

        Good luck on your paper!

      • Submitted by Chris Kriek on 04/19/2020 - 12:42 pm.

        I was 4 years old when I had polio in 1949. I needed a respirator and was paralyzed on my left side. All I remember is wanting my sheet. When taken to Ramsey county hospital they stripped me and wrapped me in a sheet to be burned later. I also remember the spinal taps and seeing my parents through a glass window. It was thanks to the Sister Kenny Foundation that I at 74 years old have few if any symptoms. I was treated by the foundation and they supported all my rehabilitation.

  3. Submitted by Cindy Burrowes on 07/28/2015 - 09:45 pm.

    Dtr. Had Polio

    My dtr. Is 10. We adopted her from China and she contracted the virus when she was a baby. It has affected her left leg from her hip down to her foot. Can anyone help me out with some treatment options. Thank you, Cindy

    • Submitted by Becky Anderberg on 01/26/2016 - 11:32 pm.


      I know a woman who’s father tied her paralyzed foot to a tricycle pedal & created a path thruout the house for her to pedal all day using her good leg. It caused her weak leg to “remember” how to move (Sister Kenny technique) & she has walked normally for 60yrs now. Her arm & hand are much weaker bcz it wasn’t moving as much as her leg did. They were improvising. They had no idea what Sister Kenny taught.

  4. Submitted by Becky Anderberg on 01/26/2016 - 11:24 pm.

    10yr old dtr post polio

    U live very close to the Sister Kenny Rehab facility that was created to do physical therapy for polio children. Read about her life’s work or watch the Sister Elizabeth Kenny movie starring Rosalind Russell. She caused hundreds of children to regain movement during & after polio. It’s possible your daughter could regain mobility using her physical therapy treatments so make that appointment!

  5. Submitted by stephen black on 03/31/2020 - 11:28 pm.

    I was 3 years old when I had paralytic polio. I went to the Salem hospital in Salem Ma because they offered the Sister Kenny treatment. Because of my mother’s choice I am mostly unaffected by the Disease. I remember the smell of the heated wool blankets. I remember isolation wards and bed pans. It was a steady routine of hot blankets, crying myself to sleep then waking cold and wet. I would call for them to change the blankets. When the next hot blankets arrived, I swore to myself next time I would rather freeze then be hit with the hot blankets. Of course next time waking wet and cold I would call out again! There was also some weird smell that one time walking through the basement of a hospital I noticed that smell again, not wet wool. There was no one to ask what the smell was. Anyways after being left at 3 like a jelly fish, unable to move with therapy I am at 68 years old still moving well. I credit Sister Kenny with my life without leg braces. My mother always said she did not get much credit because it was not a cure and because she was a women. But I am thankful every day of my life because of her treatments!

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