Sister Kenny (1946) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • An Australian nurse discovers an effective new treatment for infantile paralysis, but experiences great difficulty in convincing doctors of the validity of her claims.

  • Elizabeth Kenny, as a young nurse out in the Australian bush discovers an effective treatment for polio, but can't get official recognition or sanction for her techniques and theories. For more than three decades (while she tells her fiancée she can't marry him, and repeatedly confronts the pigheaded orthopedic specialist Dr. Brack), she is prevented from treating acute cases and is ridiculed, while she seeks formal recognition for the efficacy of her treatment.

  • Fictionalized account of the famed Australian Elizabeth Kenny whose revolutionary treatment for polio was hailed by many as the next best treatment to a cure itself. As presented in the film, Kenny came across her treatment of hot compresses and physiotherapy quite by accident. She almost immediately runs into the prejudice of the medical profession with the sole exception of a family medicine practitioner, Dr. McDonnell. She serves as a nurse in Europe in World War I and on her return to Australia has every intention of giving up nursing and marrying her longtime beau, Kevin Connors. She is drawn back into her work by the plight of the children she sees and sacrifices her personal life for the sake of her patients. After many years she eventually travels to the United States where she faces the same uphill battle against the medical profession. After several years, she eventually receives a more positive reception by some in the profession.

  • A semi-fictionalized account of the adult life of Elizabeth Kenny is presented. This phase of her story begins in the pre-WWI era, when she begins work as a well respected and well liked bush nurse in the Australian outback of Queensland, near where she grew up. She decides on this work rather than to take a job in a Brisbane hospital under her mentor, general practitioner Dr. McDonnell, as was expected because she feels she can do more good in the outback. In her work, she encounters several cases of what she will learn is infantile paralysis aka polio, for which there is no cure. The remote diagnosis is made by renowned Brisbane orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brack via Dr. McDonnell, who, in his telegram, tells Elizabeth to treat the symptoms as best she can. In doing so, she is able to cure all her cases to the point of the children being able to walk unaided. Elizabeth is unaware of what she has discovered until she goes into the city and meets with Drs. McDonnell and Brack and learns that polio victims are generally treated by immobilization of the affected muscles, which requires splints, braces and aids to assist in walking. While Dr. McDonnell realizes what Elizabeth has done, Dr. Brack, an expert in the field, dismisses her cases as not being infantile paralysis, and he refusing to allow Elizabeth to demonstrate on or treat any acute cases in the hospital, he fearing for the patients' safety and well-being. As Elizabeth begins to be convinced by Dr. McDonnell that she has indeed discovered a new more effective treatment for polio, she begins to butt heads with Dr. Brack, who is convinced that she is a quack, largely because she is not a physician, let alone not one specializing in orthopedics. Dr. Brack is also able to convince the same to the medical community in orthopedics in Australia. Elizabeth has to decide how far she will take this fight, which if she does make it her mission to try to treat cases of polio and to make the Kenny treatment as it is called the new method of treatment within the general medical community, will be incompatible with a family life of her own, Captain Kevin Connors with the Australian Army, a longtime beau, who wants to marry her.



The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • A story based on the life of Elizabeth Kenny (Rosalind Russell). It begins, shortly before the start of World War I, as she takes up work as a nurse in the bush' near her parents farm - not far from Toowoomba (a regional centre in rural Queensland, Australia). Kenny shows a great deal of skill in her new job and is much loved by all those in her care.

    One night she is called out to a child named Doreen McIntyre (Doreen McCann), whose symptoms include contorted limbs and a stiffly curved spine. Not knowing what it could be she describes the symptoms, by telegraph, to a doctor friend - Dr Aeneas McDonnell (Alexander Know) - in Toowoomba. His reply indicates that the disease she has described is a clear-cut case of Infantile paralysis (Polio). His advice is to treat the child, according to the symptoms ... no more.

    Nurse Kenny is unsure what to do but, nevertheless, does what she thinks is best - which is to wrap the childs stiffened limbs in hot woolen sheets to relieve what she calls 'spasms'. Eventually the treatment seems to work, in that it relieves the twisted limbs but afterwards she discovers that the child is unable to move her legs. Again, unsure of what to do, but naïve enough to try anything, she decides that the childs muscles must have forgotten how to move and so proceeds to 're-educate' them.

    While treating Doreen, five other cases of the same disease arise in her area and she treats them all in the same way. All six children achieve a full recovery, however, Kenny is unaware of the importance of her accomplishment until she goes to see her friend Dr McDonnell in nearby Toowoomba.

    The reason for her visit to Toowoomba is to inform McDonnell of her impending marriage to a long time friend, Kevin Connors (Dean Jagger), who is just back from the War. According to nursing regulations at the time, her marriage means that she will no longer able to continue work. However, while she is there, McDonnell shows her the impact which a recent outbreak of Polio has had on the children around Toowoomba and cites a figure of 80 percent who have ended up with permanent disabilities and who face lives spent in callipers and on crutches. When Kenny shows Doreen (whom she happened to bring along for the ride) to him, he cant believe how healthy she is and is even more surprised when Kenny informs him that her five other patients are equally as well.

    He takes Kenny in to meet an Orthopedic specialist at the hospital, a Dr Brack (Philip Merivale), who hears Kennys story - and then examines Doreen - however he dismisses her ideas as foolish nonsense and says that it is obvious that Doreen must never have had Polio in the first place.

    Brack explains that every textbook ever written on the subject states that the muscles which extend as the childs limbs twist, is the one affected by Polio and that it was the Polio which caused it to become weak in the first place. He adds that the muscle on the opposite side of the limb takes control of it and it ends up pulling the limb out of alignment.

    However, Kennys treatment is based on just the opposite; that it is the shortened muscle which is diseased and that it has gone into what she calls a 'spasm', placing the sound muscle in a position where it is not being used - thus losing its ability to function. Her theory involves 're-educating' the under-used muscles by exercising until they are strong enough to resume normal use.

    This begins a forty year feud between the two, with Kenny seeing, first hand, the evidence that her treatment works (even with children Brack has given up on) and Brack clinging steadfastly to his established ideas - which involve immobilising the patients limbs rather than mobilising them - a treatment which Kenny sees as making the condition worse.

    Meanwhile, Kenny puts her marriage to Connors on hold, as she takes on the medical profession, and Connors is re-called for active service in Europe.

    Every time Kenny tries to have her treatment acknowledged, the medical establishment thwarts her but despite this, she gains notoriety by establishing clinics to prove her point. Children come form everywhere to be treated by her - with great success. But, still, the establishment will not budge. Eventually, a sympathetic Medical Director (John Litel), who is motivated by the great deal of public support being shown for Sister Kenny, sets up a Royal Commission. However, the Commission is dominated by Brack and other Orthopaedic specialists who convince it to reject Kenny's ideas - as well as her right to practice - threatening to prosecute her if she does.

    Time and time again she postpones her marriage to Connors in order to fight for her ideas and, time and time again, he continues to wait and gives his support until, eventually, it gets too much for him and he leaves, leaving both of he and Kenny heart broken.

    Kenny, her fame having spread world-wide, is invited to work in England where, once again, she achieves excellent results but is dismissed by the medical establishment. There to it forces her to cease her work. She returns home for a while only to be invited to work in the United States. When she arrives she is hailed as an anti-establishment rebel and a hero to the all the victims of Polio, only to be thwarted, once again by the inability of the medical profession to think laterally.

    Dejected and about to return home to Australia, Kenny receives an last minute invitation to practice in Minnesota, where a recent outbreak of Polio has motivated the State's Health authorities to try out her ideas. With the support of the State's medical system, she achieves outstanding success but, once again, a Federal Inquiry finds her ideas to have no substance.

    Despite this, Kenny seems to take finds contentment in spreading the word among sympathetic doctors and seeing the benefits she can bring to her hoards of thankful patients.

    As the movie closes, Kenny is celebrating her birthday with her patients singing 'Happy Birthday' to her. Having given up the chance for love and having devoted her entire life to fight the medical status quo, she realises that her life has not been wasted - not in the least.

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