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Kenny, Elizabeth (1880–1952)

Elizabeth Kenny, c.1951

Elizabeth Kenny, c.1951

State Library of Queensland, 81099

Elizabeth Kenny, perhaps the most widely-known Australian woman of her time, died at her home, "Struan," Toowoomba, today at 1.32 p.m., aged 66 years. She died peacefully and without regaining consciousness.

Her death closes one of the most remarkable and controversial careers this country has known. While Australians treated Sister Kenny's claims with reserve, Americans made her a world figure as the saviour of victims of poliomyelitis.

Sister Kenny died from an attack of cerebral thrombosis, after having raised and lowered hopes for a week as to the possibility of her recovery.

When her physician, Dr. John Ogden. reported about midday today that her condition had deteriorated seriously, it was apparent then that the end was very near.

The depth of her state of coma began to increase early last night, and in a bulletin issued at 5.45 p.m., Dr. Ogden said that little hope could be held out for her recovery, either partial or complete. The mercy dash with the new anti-thrombic serum, trypsin, from New York had come far too late to be of any benefit, the doctor reported today.

He would not consider that the serum had even a fair clinical trial. as Sister Kenny's condition was too far advanced. She was moribund when the drug  was first administered, and had been so for the past few days.

Many tributes were paid tonight by Brisbane church leaders to Sister Kenny. The Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane (Dr. Halsa) said it was with great regret that he heard of the death of Sister Kenny, who was owed a debt by suffering humanity.

He said, "I have tremendous admiration for her wholehearted devotion to overcoming the dreadful disease of polio."

"She left behind her an example of devoted service towards the cause of alleviating suffering. Her life was devoted to overcoming polio, and many thousands have benefited from her methods." 

Rev. T. Rees Thomas of the City Congregational Church, said. "The work of Sister Kenny, like that of all pioneers, will remain as a symbol of progress in the field of humanitarianism.

"Despite weighty opposition, often born of prejudice and conservatism she followed the lead of her convictions, and brought untold relief to hundreds of thousands of people.

"No other death since that of Mahatma Gandhi, will bring so great sorrow, to so many hearts, both people the world over will remember her for her unselfish dedication to her mission."

The Queensland Council of Churches President (Rev. R. E. Pashen) said, "Sister Kenny was responsible for the practical demonstration of Christianity in work she accomplished in helping to cure victims of polio. Her humanitarian service has done a great deal to establish ties of friendship between the many nations amongst which she worked."

To some Sister Kenny was a martyr in the cause of cripples, to others a well-meaning charlatan. The controversy that surrounded her life's work will long survive her death, but it can be claimed for her that she gave an impetus to the treatment of a dread disease and so served humanity well.

Few women in modern times have lived so turbulent a life. Much of the battle was of her making. She was fanatically sure of the right of her claims and brooked no argument from doctors or anyone else.

That sense of mission brought her out of the Queensland bush to become an international figure; to have Hollywood make a film of her in her lifetime: to be acclaimed in American polls as the most outstanding woman: to get honorary doctorates from universities; to have Congress pass a bill giving her a permanent visa to the United States, and to have luncheon at the White House with a President.

She was not a native of Queensland. Her birthplace was Warialda, in northern New South Wales.

She came up to the Darling Downs with her farming family as a child, the second youngest of a family of nine.

The film of her life gave the impression that she was trained at the Toowoomba hospital. She was not. She claimed to have been trained at the Scotia Private Hospital in Sydney.

Critics alleged she had never qualified as a certified nurse, but no critic questioned the service she gave on Australian Army Hospital ships and in England during the first World War. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross.

It was only when she put forward her claim of  "a new concept of the Symptoms and treatment of the disease, infantile paralysis," that she became locked in a long quarrel with doctors.

Her work among stricken children at Townsville first brought her to the notice of the Queensland Government in the late thirties. The Government brought her to Brisbane and financed the establishment of Kenny clinics at Brisbane and other centres.

Sister Kenny was in conflict with doctors from the start. Her severest medical critics said that what was good in her method was not new, and what was new could be harmful. She insisted that if she could get cases to treat, and in the acute stage of the disease, she would prove doctors wrong.

The argument was still strong when she was invited to America in 1940. The Queensland Government voted £300 to assist her passage. 

In America she attracted eminent medical support, but there also many doctors were septical. The American people, however, put her on a pedestal as one of the great women of the age.

Kenny clinics were opened in several American cities and subsequently the Kenny treatment spread to South America, Canada, Eire, Belgium, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Spain, India and other countries.

She returned to Australia five times but received little acclaim. Finally she came – only last year – to spend her last days at Toowoomba, not far from the farm at Nobby where she had grown up.

Six months later she was back in New York on her way to Copenhagen. She was reported then to have described herself to interviewers as a woman dying from Parkinson's disease.

She was back in Australia in October, 1951. left again for America last March and returned in September to announce, "My victory is won. The polio virus has been isolated. Scientists will now be able to develop an effective vaccine.

"Columbia University has dedicated the virus discovery to me in recognition of my work." Her last months were spent in preparing notes in further exposition of her claims. She was still fighting for her cause when death came to her at 66.

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'Kenny, Elizabeth (1880–1952)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/kenny-elizabeth-6934/text35048, accessed 23 October 2019.

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