The Minneapolis roots of a pre-vaccine polio treatment

Elizabeth Kenny
Elizabeth Kenny, a self-trained nurse, successfully treated polio with strengthening and flexibility exercises. Minneapolis’ Kenny neighborhood is named after her. This photo was taken in September 1940. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Star

“Polio was a plague. One day you had a head- ache and an hour later you were paralyzed. How far the virus crept up your spine determined whether you could walk afterward or even breathe. Parents waited fearfully every summer to see if it would strike. One case turned up and then another. The count began to climb.” — Richard Rhodes

Polio epidemics came in waves, the most cases in the summer. Originally, the disease seemed only to affect small children. It was commonly called infantile paralysis. But as the 20th century wore on, older people began to contract it more often. Elementary-age kids, college students and young adults became victims of polio. It was considered infectious but not contagious. Polio had little tendency to spread within households. For many years, it was unclear how the disease did spread. The mystery made it more frightening.

The polio virus lived in the nasal passages and intestines and was spread by fecal matter. Blame unwashed hands, sometimes of someone handling the food supply. It spread by saliva, which meant kissing or sharing utensils, and it spread via uncovered sneezes and coughs. But this information and the obvious common-sense precautions were not widely known. Polio was a Grim Reaper of a disease, taking healthy children and twisting their limbs or killing them outright. In the epidemic years of the 1930s, there would be hundreds of cases all over the country. By the 1940s, those numbers grew to tens of thousands.

About three-quarters of those infected with polio had no symptoms at all, and another 24% had a minor illness. But paralytic polio occurred in about 1% of cases. The virus would enter the nervous system. Those who lived might never walk again. Those paralyzed and unable to breath would die. The first artificial breathing machine (the “iron lung”) came to Minneapolis in 1930. At first, there was only one.

People were terrified. Rumors spread in Minneapolis that one could catch it from swimming in the lakes. In 1930, Health Commissioner Dr. F. E. Harrington reassured the public, “There is no infantile paralysis in the water and the lake is all right for bathing. Of course, all lake water suffers when bathers by the hundreds and thousands use it, but there is absolutely no danger at Harriet.”

The case counts grew and grew and grew, and so did the public terror. In epidemic years like 1946 there were 25,000 cases of paralytic polio in the U.S., and Minneapolis was especially hard hit. Children were not allowed outside. The streets were empty of traffic, and the restaurants had no one in them.

There was no cure for polio, and there still is not. In the early days of these recurring 20th century epidemics, doctors treated it with “serum,” a blood transfusion with the blood of someone who had survived the disease. The problem with that was the shortage of blood. Researchers in the 1930s turned their attention to producing immunity. And their vaccine was ultimately so successful that it has nearly eradicated polio everywhere in the world.

Kids in iron lungs
Pediatric polio patients in iron lungs at the Minneapolis General Hospital in 1947. Courtesy of the Hennepin Medical History Center

Those who had the paralytic form of polio in those pre-vaccine years were cared for as well as medicine knew how. The illness caused painful muscle spasms. Many children were left with twisted weak limbs and permanent deformities. Doctors believed that deformities were caused by these spasms when the stronger muscles would pull bones out of alignment when they were in spasm. As a solution, they encased patients’ limbs in rigid casts and braces, sometimes for months. And in those cases healthy muscles would also atrophy and lose strength due to lack of use.

Into this frightened and desperate time came an Australian woman named Elizabeth Kenny. She was a self-trained nurse who had earned the honorific “Sister” from the Australian Army. She volunteered for troop transports, nursing the injured soldiers of World War I.

Later, as a trained nurse, she was called to a cattle station where a child was unable to walk due to her twisted legs. Kenny had never seen polio before. The doctor was reached by tele- graph. He told her what it was and that there was no cure. She should “do the best you can.”

Sister Kenny tried to relieve the girl’s pain with moist heat. She wrung out torn strips of wool blankets in boiling water and applied the hot wet compresses to her legs. The girl’s pain eased, and she fell asleep. When she awoke, the girl said, “I want them rags that ‘wells’ my legs!”

Kenny refined her treatment with strengthening and flexibility exercises. Her results seemed miraculous, and soon she had clinics in Australia where she trained others in her methods.

Doctors in Australia provided her with letters of introduction in America. Unfor- tunately, in New York and Chicago, she was considered too unorthodox. Her insistence on relieving muscle spasms did not sit well with the surgeons who heard her presentations. The Mayo Clinic thought her work sounded inter- esting, but her next stop was in Minneapolis.

Here, she connected with doctors at the university and at several hospitals. She was finally allowed to demonstrate her techniques, at first on patients for whom “obviously” nothing more could be done. The boy who could not lower his arm due to shortened tight muscles was home in a few months, happily shoveling snow. Another little one with twisted feet was cured in three days. The doctors asked Sister Kenny if she would “stick around a while.”

The University of Minnesota’s medical school studied her methods. Her work to train others began in June 1941. The university published this opinion: “This method will form the basis of all future treatment … 55% full recoveries in 32.6 days.”

Sister Kenny stayed in Minneapolis. Eventually the city gave her a house out of sheer gratitude. The Kenny neighborhood, its park and its elementary school are all named after her. On Dec. 17, 1942, The Elizabeth Kenny Institute was opened at 18th and Chicago.

Her work brought health back to thousands, necessary in those years before the terrible scare of polio was eradicated. And she did it through two world wars and a depression, through decades of plague years when the invisible illness crept among the people, times when the world seemed too near the edge of collapse.