Curiosity Over Certainty - Elizabeth Kenny

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Have you ever met someone who is so certain that they are right – you know the type of person I mean, someone who has so much conviction about their opinion, their methodology, their knowledge that they just have to make sure you (and everyone else) has the benefit of learning from them – no matter what!  Now I am not saying it isn’t a good thing to be passionate about what you believe in and to have great certainty in yourself, knowing what you stand for.  What I am curious about is when being so right can be so wrong. 

As I look back over my life I can recall lots of conversations where I had opinions that I knew were right – many of them were “scientifically” proven facts and yet 10-20 years on we now know that what at one time seemed so definite is now “scientifically” refuted.  Over and over again through life great discoveries have been made because someone is willing to be the first to say “the emperor has no clothes”. 

Elizabeth Kenny

Elizabeth Kenny dared to challenge the wisdom of the Australian medical fraternity in the early part of the 20th century.  Her deep determination, clinical powers of observation and unrelenting purpose to cure her patients drove her to forcefully advocate her new method to treat polio.  Consequently, Sister Elizabeth Kenny succeeded in eliminating the spectre of a being bedridden for life and reducing the agony experienced by thousands upon thousands of polio sufferers around the world. 

Polio mercilessly ruins countless young lives.  Across the globe in the 1920s to 40s, rates were rising and this viral disease was, and still is dreaded.  Those severely affected first develop fever, body aches and varying degrees of paralysis.  In advanced cases the virus attacks the brain stem and respiratory muscles killing 5-10% of paralysed polio patients and leaving up to 50% of survivors with persistent partial paralysis.  This disease is a shocker so the need to treat it effectively and ultimately eliminate it from the planet is paramount!

As a bush nurse in remote Queensland, Sister Kenny had encountered a few children with a mysterious fever which left behind some paralysis. This disease that was soon to sweep the world in epidemic proportions became known as polio.  Whilst treating these patients in her own tiny hospital at Clifton Sister Kenny had made a crucial observation – heated cloths and muscle exercises relieved patients’ pain and restored movement to their limbs.  She also had observed throughout her nursing career that patients who believed recovery was possible and were involved in their recovery by learning how their muscles worked stood a better chance than those who remained bedridden.  The Kenny method developed further with Sister Kenny giving her polio patients remedial exercises and hydrotherapy treatment. 

These radical interventions flew in the face of the traditional polio treatment which emphasized using the approach of splints to immobilize paralysed limbs, bed rest and surgery.  As word of Sister Kenny’s successful treatments spread, so too did the hysterical voices of those who railed against her.  Doctors and physical therapists relying on immobilization techniques believed there was no scientific foundation for her therapy and roundly criticised her for creating false hope. 

Branded as an untrained charlatan Kenny’s powerful enemies established a Royal Commission to report on her treatment methods.  The findings of the Commission (1935) damned the “Kenny method” in favour of the prevailing “scientific” hospital treatment of immobilization.  What they failed to see and continued to deny was that her techniques worked, children were walking again!

Kenny continued her work and families saw her as a beacon of hope for their children.  Polio swept the world and Sister Kenny followed it – she went to Britain and opened a Kenny Polio Treatment Clinic in Surrey.  She returned to Melbourne Australia where the Kenny method became the model for successful polio treatment, a treatment approach my own mother benefitted from 10 years later.

United States of America was the destination of Sister Kenny’s next mission.  Here the medical profession embraced her new ideas enthusiastically as Elizabeth Kenny set off to battle the polio epidemic in Minnesota.  Based in Minneapolis, the American authorities gave her a teaching position at the University of Minneapolis Medical School, beds for her patients and by 1942 she had opened the Elizabeth Kenny Institute to thoroughly train therapists in her methodology.   Sister Kenny was adored in the US with her popularity being even higher than that of Eleanor Roosevelt.  The US Congress passed a special Act that enabled her to come and go in America as she pleased without having to obtain a passport or a visa. 

Elizabeth Kenny didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  She steadfastly trusted her observations and the experiences her patients were achieving with her treatment.  In the face of enormous opposition she continued to say “the emperor has no clothes” and a generation of polio victims walked normally because she did. 

For most adults there is a point in life where we decide – I know what I am doing, I know about life, I know this and I know that…. When you embrace NLP the focus shifts from what you decide you know to the question of:

What if it was different? 

What if there were more choices; more options and alternatives.  Imagine the freedom to find possibilities, just like Sister Kenny did.  Possibilities where perhaps previously you believed they didn’t exist.

Because, just like the knowledge that the world was flat and all evidence known to humankind proved this to be true, we have travelled beyond the boundaries of our previous knowledge.  We have heard of new techniques and methods and seen with our own eyes the contrast between the enormous cost of clinging to knowing we are right, against the wealth of discoveries that being curious and open to learning has given us. 

Make today your day

Cheers Joanne

Footnote:   In 1988 Rotary International continued Elizabeth Kenny’s fight with the End Polio campaign.  At this time there were still 125 polio-endemic countries.  Today polio has been reduced by 99% - there are only 3 endemic countries left (Nigeria, Pakistan & Afghanistan).  We are so close to ending this crippling disease October 24th is World Polio Day you can join Rotary’s livestream event on the 24th here:


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Joanne Clark

Joanne Clark is an Internationally accredited Master Trainer of NLP who has been delivering NLP training since 2011.  Being on her feet in front of training rooms is where Jo loves to be and her passion for inclusive and immersive training that delivers outstanding learning outcomes is apparent to everyone in her training rooms.  On average Jo delivers 140 days of training per year in addition to online webinars, guest speaker events and group coaching. 

“NLP is at the core of all my training and coaching, it is at the core of who I am, how I interact and connect with people.  I am absolutely passionate about spreading the NLP tools across the planet as I endeavour to support Robert Dilts’s vision of Creating a world to which people want to belong.” Joanne Clark

Certified Master Trainer of NLP; Master Practitioner NLP, Hypnotherapy & Matrix Therapies; Performance Coach; Cert IV Coaching; Advanced Practitioner in Coaching; Cert IV in Business; BA(Hons); Majors in Sociology and Psychology; Parent Education Leadership Training (PELT) Certificate; Mother of four children; Private Pilot (PPL); Diploma in Life Coaching