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Fighting polio with "gentle hands"
By Dan Olson
Minnesota Public Radio
August 22, 2002


Sister Elizabeth Kenny
Sister Elizabeth Kenny. See historic images.
(Photo courtesy of Margaret Opdahl Ernest)

Fifty-six years ago this month, the Minnesota State Fair was cancelled. The reason was polio. Health officials worried large gatherings helped spread the disease.

Polio was crippling thousands and there was no known cure or prevention. Throughout the 1940s and early '50s, polio struck 15,000 Minnesotans - 900 died. Those who survived were consigned to a life with metal braces, crutches and deformed limbs.

Then Elizabeth Kenny arrived. The single-minded, self-taught nurse from Australia brought to Minnesota a treatment that got paralyzed polio victims up and walking.

Elizabeth Kenny emerged from obscurity and became America's most admired woman. Her remarkable story has few parallels in medical history.

Part 1 - Fear of polio grips the nation

Part 2 - Elizabeth Kenny's early career

Part 3 - Kenny makes her mark in Minnesota

Part 4 - Sister Kenny's legacy

And They Shall Walk, by Sister Elizabeth Kenny, written in collaboration with Martha Ostenso.

Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors, by Victor Cohn, a former Minneapolis Star and Washington Post reporter.

More Information
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Background on polio
  • PBS A short timeline of polio history
  • Polio Eradication Initiative Organized by the World Health Organization
  • End of Polio Photo gallery of the worldwide campaign against polio
  • University of Michigan 40th anniversary of development of Salk polio vaccine