Nurse Irene Shea Studies the "Kenny Method" of Treatment of Infantile Paralysis, 1942-1943

Article excerpt

Abstract. In the 1940s nurses in the United States set out to learn the Kenny method of treating polio patients, which relied on hot packs and muscle strengthening exercises instead of the standard system of prolonged immobilization. Named for Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian nurse who based herself in Minnesota during the 1940s and early 1950s, and viewed with suspicion by many physicians, nurses, and physical therapists, the treatment nonetheless proved effective. It changed the practice of polio nursing and the experiences of patients in the years before vaccine prevention largely eliminated paralytic polio.

The documents discussed here show how one nurse, Irene Shea, sought to learn the Kenny method and how she viewed both Kenny and her treatment protocol. The documents provide a window into an important aspect of nursing history, elucidating the ways nurses in the past sought to learn new clinical techniques and how their efforts to do so required an understanding of the local medical and political environment. They also suggest how issues of hospital authority, disease philanthropy, health care financing, and relations between nurses and physicians shaped the scope of nursing practice and thus nurses' options for advanced continuing education.

In June 1942, Irene F. Shea, R.N., superintendent of nurses at Baltimore's Sydenham Hospital, the city's infectious disease hospital, wrote to Dr. Huntington Williams, head of the city's health department (see Document 1). 2 She sought funding for one or two staff nurses to attend a one-week course in the Kenny method for the treatment of infantile paralysis (polio).1 Shea had recently returned from the annual meeting of the American Medical Association (AMA) in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which she attended with support from both the health department and the Maryland chapter of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), popularly known as the March of Dimes. While there she had the opportunity to see a special exhibit organized by the NFIP and to attend lectures by three physicians who spoke to packed audiences about the Kenny method. Two of Kenny's Australian assistants demonstrated elements of her work to the audience. Kenny herself, who was living in Minneapolis and teaching local professionals with support from the March of Dimes, had not been invited. The March of Dimes wanted medical skeptics to judge the work and not the woman.

Polio patients received care in hospitals with contagious disease facilities. In Baltimore, Sydenham, the city's infectious disease hospital, housed these patients. After speaking with one of the Kenny technicians at the AMA meeting, Shea concluded that, despite the new method's unusual concepts and new terminology like spasm, in-coordination, and mental alienation, "it seems to be a rather simple nursing procedure." She believed it could easily be learned at a one-week course offered at the University of Minnesota under Kenny herself, or at Warm Springs, Georgia, the polio rehabilitative center established in the 1920s by Franklin Roosevelt.

In the 1930s and 1940s polio epidemics in the United States became increasingly common and more serious. Most frequently polio struck down young children, but teenagers and adults were also vulnerable. No one knew how the disease spread-although water, flies, and contaminated food were blamed-or how the virus entered and left the body, or how to prevent paralysis. An effort to develop a vaccine in the mid-1930s ended in disaster, and a trial of a nasal spray a few years later also proved disappointing.

Pain, muscle sensitivity, and paralysis characterized the early or acute stages of polio, and the particular manifestations of these symptoms could neither be predicted nor halted. During the 1910s physician Robert Lovett and his physical therapist Janet Merrill developed a system of rest and splinting based on the fear that inappropriately stretched muscles would become weak and further deform a patient struggling to regain muscle function. …