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  • Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine by Naomi Rogers
  • Stephen E. Mawdsley
Naomi Rogers. Polio Wars: Sister Kenny and the Golden Age of American Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. xxxi + 456 pp. Ill. (978-0-19-538059-0).

In Polio Wars, Naomi Rogers builds on her important contributions to the field of American medical history by addressing a deficit in the historiography on the experiences and influence of Australian nurse and medical crusader, Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Prior to Rogers’s monograph, the historical memory surrounding Kenny was primarily shaped by the works of medical writers and journalists, such as Victor Cohn’s Sister Kenny: The Woman Who Challenged the Doctors (1975). Whether complimentary or critical, many of these early biographies did not contextualize Kenny’s challenges or contributions. By contrast, Rogers endeavors to provide a more thorough and nuanced analysis of Kenny by using her life as a lens to examine the politics of medicine during the 1940s and 1950s.

Rogers draws on an impressive range of archival and published sources, including interviews, institutional records, films, letters, and newspapers to ground her analysis. She shows that before Kenny arrived in the United States in the early 1940s, orthodox medical practitioners saw polio as a nerve disease and favored immobilization of paralyzed limbs with casts or splits. By contrast, Kenny considered polio a systemic disease and rejected immobilization; she believed that paralysis needed to be treated early with special exercise and hot compresses to reduce spasms and reeducate afflicted limbs. Although Kenny’s theory and treatment gave patients hope and improved prognoses, they riled conservative medical elites who resented external interference. Although Kenny was initially funded by grants from America’s foremost polio charity, the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, growing resentment of her manner and method led to a break with her sponsor and inspired the founding of a competing charity and training center, the Kenny Foundation. Over time, many of Kenny’s methods were [End Page 623] subsumed into clinical practice, leading to important shifts in polio treatment. Rogers convincingly argues that Kenny became an important medical reformer, savvy publicist, and scientific visionary whose clash with orthodox practitioners was as much shaped by tensions over gender norms, therapeutic tradition, and medical authority as it was over her assertive personality and want of formal medical training.

Polio Wars is organized chronologically, with nine chapters coherently grouped into three parts that correspond to phases in Kenny’s life. The first part explores Kenny’s formative years as a “bush nurse” (p. 5) in Australia, the mixture of adulation and resistance she received in the United States, and her initial foray into reforming polio treatment. The second part examines the politics of American medicine and how Kenny negotiated society and its institutions to advance her agenda. The closing portion assesses how she tapped the power of medical populism and internationalism to reach a wider audience with her message. Neither heroine nor fraud, Kenny is framed as a complex person who coped with the paradox of loneliness and the cult of celebrity to achieve clinical reform.

The book boasts many strengths and is especially interesting in its exploration of historical memory. Rogers reveals that Kenny was concerned by her opponents and set about securing a legacy through film, publishing, and philanthropy. She supported science by investing in researchers, such as Dr. Claus W. Jungeblut, and was among the first to appreciate the significance of Dr. John Enders’s discovery that poliovirus could be cultured in non-neurological tissue. However, without the support of influential medical elites, the Kenny legacy crumbled after her death in 1952 under the weight of petty jealousies, unresolved conflicts, and the trope of triumphalist science. Furthermore, Rogers’s utilization of film as a source, including Kenny’s Hollywood biopic and training materials, is refreshing and sheds further light on her place and time.

Polio Wars is an imposing read at over four hundred pages, and at some points Kenny’s story is overshadowed by the tremendous level of detail. Nevertheless, the book is accessibly written and will appeal to a wide audience: nurses, physiotherapists, and doctors will find the chapters on...