Elizabeth Kenny (1880 – 1952)

In 1915, Kenny volunteered to serve as a nurse in the First World War and went to Europe. She was not officially a qualified nurse, but nurses were badly needed and she was assigned to work on “Dark Ships”, slow-moving transports that ran with all lights off between Australia and England. They carried out war goods and soldiers and wounded soldiers and trade goods on the return voyage. Kenny served on these dangerous missions throughout the war, making 16 round trips (plus one round the world). In 1917 she earned the title “Sister”, which in the Australian Army Nursing Corps is the equivalent of a First Lieutenant. Kenny used that title for the rest of her life. She was criticized by some for doing so, but Kenny was officially promoted to the rank during her wartime service.

Kenny is quoted as saying she developed her method of rehabilitating polio victims while caring for ill soldiers on these troopships.

Her approach to treating poliomyelitis was controversial at the time. The conventional practise involved the placing of affected limbs in plaster casts. Instead Kenny applied hot compresses, followed by passive movement of the areas to reduce what she called “spasm”. Her principles of muscle rehabilitation became the foundation of physiotherapy in such cases and were later adopted all around the world.

In recognition of her work, in February 1950 President Harry Truman signed a Congressional bill giving Kenny the right to enter and leave the US as she wished without a visa, an honour which had only been granted once before.

Celebrating the women from our past to the present who have helped shape Australia.

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