Polio Wars: Sister Elizabeth Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine

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Overview


During World War II, polio epidemics in the United States were viewed as the country's "other war at home": they could be neither predicted nor contained, and paralyzed patients faced disability in a world unfriendly to the disabled. These realities were exacerbated by the medical community's enforced orthodoxy in treating the disease, treatments that generally consisted of ineffective therapies.

Polio Wars is the story of Sister Elizabeth Kenny -- "Sister" being a reference to her status as a senior nurse, not a religious designation -- who arrived in the US from Australia in 1940 espousing an unorthodox approach to the treatment of polio. Kenny approached the disease as a non-neurological affliction, championing such novel therapies as hot packs and muscle exercises in place of splinting, surgery, and immobilization. Her care embodied a different style of clinical practice, one of optimistic, patient-centered treatments that gave hope to desperate patients and families.

The Kenny method, initially dismissed by the US medical establishment, gained overwhelming support over the ensuing decade, including the endorsement of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (today's March of Dimes), America's largest disease philanthropy. By 1952, a Gallup Poll identified Sister Kenny as most admired woman in America, and she went on to serve as an expert witness at Congressional hearings on scientific research, a foundation director, and the subject of a Hollywood film. Kenny breached professional and social mores, crafting a public persona that blended Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie.

By the 1980s, following the discovery of the Salk and Sabin vaccines and the March of Dimes' withdrawal from polio research, most Americans had forgotten polio, its therapies, and Sister Kenny. In examining this historical arc and the public's process of forgetting, Naomi Rogers presents Kenny as someone worth remembering. Polio Wars recalls both the passion and the practices of clinical care and explores them in their own terms.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
09/16/2013
With this impressive study, Yale professor Rogers (Dirt and Disease: Polio Before FDR) brings into brilliant, uncompromising focus the politics, culture, and science behind this complicated, crippling disease. During American medicine’s mid-20th century “golden age” researchers were finding cures for once-deadly illnesses, and a “feisty, uncontainable woman” was at the center of an evolving understanding of polio and its treatment. When the 59-year-old Sister Elizabeth Kenny, a “bush nurse” from Australia, came to the U.S. in 1940, polio was approaching record levels. Kenny rejected standard therapies—immobilization and rest—in favor of applying hot packs and training and strengthening muscles. Though some of her methods were adopted, her critics claimed that what was good about the Kenny treatment was not new and “what is new about it is not good.” Kenny—“an outsider with an exotic background, an Australian bush nurse who became an American celebrity”—was a confident woman in a culture that believed nurses should be doctors’ handmaidens. But what she wanted—and failed to get—was a place in the scientific pantheon that included Marie Curie. Rogers’s absorbing account of Kenny’s medical contributions, philanthropy, and influence is a remarkable resource for students of the medical, political, and social history of the pre-polio vaccine years. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

Winner of the American Association for the History of Nursing's 2014 Lavinia L. Dock Award for Outstanding Research and Writing.

"With this impressive study, Yale professor Rogers brings into brilliant, uncompromising focus the politics, culture, and science behind this complicated, crippling disease... Kenny - 'an outsider with an exotic background, an Australian bush nurse who became an American celebrity' - was a confident woman in a culture that believed nurses should be doctors' handmaidens. But what she wanted - and failed to get - was a place in the scientific pantheon that included Marie Curie. Rogers's absorbing account of Kenny's medical contributions, philanthropy, and influence is a remarkable resource for students of the medical, political, and social history of the pre-polio vaccine years." -- Publishers Weekly

Thanks to Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine, a new biography by Naomi Rogers, a Yale University medical historian, readers can learn why [Sister Kenny] gained such fame. As Dr. Rogers shows, Ms. Kenny irked the American Medical Association and the rest of the medical establishment for reasons beyond her medical theories. But it was Ms. Kenny's fierce adherence to what she observed at the bedside that holds the most relevance today." -- Barron H. Lerner, New York Times' Science Times

"A new look at this bold woman's work as well as a fascinating exploration of the culture of medicine and the nature of healing." -- The Washington Post

From the Publisher
"With this impressive study, Yale professor Rogers brings into brilliant, uncompromising focus the politics, culture, and science behind this complicated, crippling disease... Kenny - 'an outsider with an exotic background, an Australian bush nurse who became an American celebrity' - was a confident woman in a culture that believed nurses should be doctors' handmaidens. But what she wanted - and failed to get - was a place in the scientific pantheon that included Marie Curie. Rogers's absorbing account of Kenny's medical contributions, philanthropy, and influence is a remarkable resource for students of the medical, political, and social history of the pre-polio vaccine years." - Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195380590
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/15/2013
  • Pages: 488
  • Sales rank: 626,668
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Naomi Rogers, PhD, is a tenured Associate Professor in the Program for the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University where she teaches medical students, undergraduates and graduate students.

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Table of Contents

Introduction

Part One

1 A Bush Nurse in America
2 The Battle Begins
3 Changing Clinical Care

Part Two

4 Polio and Disability Politics
5 The Polio Wars
6 Celluloid

Part Three

7 Kenny Goes to Washington
8 Fading Glory
9 I Knew Sister Kenny

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